A simple exercise that boosts presentation performance
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A simple exercise that boosts presentation performance

Public speaking isn’t just a competency for stand-up trainers. Whether your learners are salespeople, managers, or recent grads, there’s a good chance that public speaking will be a beneficial skill to have at some point in their careers.

The problem: Most people dread it. Just the thought of making a presentation can create anxiety and stress. For those who squirm at the idea of public speaking, researchers have found a simple technique that can help. Not only does it boost confidence and optimism, but it also decreases stress and makes you more persuasive.

The research

Researchers had subjects participate in a simulated 15-minute interview for admission to business school. The interviews were conducted by real-life graduate school recruiters and were modeled after their actual screening process. During the interview, participants had to persuade the recruiters that they had the drive, skills and experience to succeed in the program.

In preparation for the interview, researchers divided participants into three groups. Each group was asked to take part in a preparation exercise.

Group One was told to write about a time when they felt powerless (low-power); Group Two was told to write about a time when they felt powerful (high-power); and Group Three, the control group, was permitted to mentally prepare any way they liked.

The recruiters then conducted the admission interviews and evaluated each participant on whether they would be accepted into business school based on their performance.

The results: Remembering a powerful experience increased participants’ acceptance rate by 81 percent compared to the control group and a full 162 percent compared to the low-power group. The high-power participants were also rated up to 58 percent more persuasive than the others.

The power of reflection

It’s no surprise that the participants reminded of a low-power experience performed the worse. But why did the high-power participants outperform the control group so dramatically?

The research suggests that structured reflection primes the brain for success. Thinking back on a moment of power activates the same feelings and thought processes that occur when the moment is really happening. And the act of writing something down makes it even more concrete in our minds. As a result, the high-power group walked into the interview feeling capable, confident and secure.

Meanwhile, the participants in the control group, who weren’t given any structure, mentally prepared in all sorts of ways depending on the individual. Mental practice and preparation can be a very successful technique, if used correctly. But because the control group wasn’t given any guidance, their preparation wasn’t nearly as successful as those primed with powerful thoughts.

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Teach the technique. Make your learners aware of this simple exercise. Just by setting aside a little prep time for writing and reflection, employees can be much more comfortable and effective as communicators.

Not just for public speaking. The study replicated a formal interview, but the research suggests that it can help in a variety of interpersonal situations, from a phone call with a potential client to a conversation with a coworker. A boost in confidence and persuasive power is almost universally beneficial in the workplace.

Mental practice works too – if there’s structure. While mental preparation didn’t work too well for the group in the study, it can have positive results if people are given direction. For example, instead of telling learners to mentally prepare for a complex task however they want, give them a process or script they can follow to mentally practice. Studies have shown that structured mental rehearsal can have dramatic results.

Lammers, J., et al. (2013). Power gets the job: Priming power improves interview outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(4), 776-779.

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