Influencing and Presentation Confidence: Sports psychology for communicators

By Carolyn Crawford


I don’t think anyone falls into corporate training or coaching for a living unless they have at least a passing interest in psychology. My interest has journeyed over the years from a curiosity about the impact of our upbringing and environments, to a solid exploration of many of the works generated by the Human Potential Movement. I’ve studied the biology and science of happiness, classic philosophy, and metaphysics.

It’s surprising then that the arena of sports psychology hasn’t really captured me until recently. Perhaps it’s because I’m mostly drawn to the esoteric over the mainstream.

Having said that, as I continue to develop and fine-tune our wonderful (if I do say so myself) ‘Simply Influencing Ourselves’ workshop (which explores our limiting self-talk and how we can maximise our productivity through challenging and changing some of our thought processes), my path was bound to collide at some stage with the world of sports psychology where self-talk plays such a critical role to peak performance.

Wikipedia sums up 5 core techniques utilized in sports psychology ( ) that I though worth discussing in relation to communication. There’s probably room for an essay on each area individually. For our purposes here however, I’ve kept it simple.

  1. Arousal regulation – In sports psychology this refers to “entering into and maintaining an optimal level of cognitive and physiological activation in order to maximize performance. This may include relaxation if one becomes too anxious through methods such as progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, and meditation, or the use of energizing techniques (e.g., listening to music, energizing cues) if one is not alert enough.”

In a communications sense this translates into managing your own emotional state to either feel calm and confident prior to a meeting or to generate some energy and enthusiasm if a meeting is dragging and losing vitality.

Let’s consider each side of the coin in turn. Classic calming techniques or anxiety reduction techniques, include meditation, deep breathing, slowing down and smiling, all of which help to reduce physical tension. Visualisation and pre-performance routines discussed below are also enormously helpful in this regard.

Generating personal energy on the other hand is most effectively done through changing your physiology. Stretch your arms and shoulders, lean forward, start to gesture while talking, move around if possible and don’t be afraid to stand and wander even in a meeting – people understand the need to get your blood circulating and brain activated. You can always use the excuse of going to point to a diagram on the whiteboard.

If you’re alone at your desk and want to reinvigorate your brain so you can convey some enthusiasm and conviction in the report you’re about to write, make a difficult phonecall, or present with some gusto despite a tough day so far, look for some inspiration on Youtube. Check out your favourite comedian or listen to a great piece of music. Online braingames are also great for firing you up. It feels hard to take the time and challenge the guilt feelings that we should be doing something more productive, but there’s little that’s more constructive than shifting into a more positive mind-set before any piece of communication.

And if someone asks what you’re doing, you can always answer “arousal regulation for optimal productivity” 

  1. Goal setting – This is clearly a more standard business tool but let’s talk about it in relation to communication. You’ll need to consider the specific goal for this specific communication. You may have a bigger goal such as influencing this person to change the incentive scheme for your team members in six months time at the beginning of the new FY. What we want to focus on here however is the goal for the communication in this particular upcoming meeting, which may be the first or fifth in a series of fortnightly meetings. The goal for this meeting might be to demonstrate the dedication of your team and their outstanding results but also the untapped opportunities. Or it may be to mention how a different business unit is operating and the jump in results they’ve achieved.

For a cold call the goal might be to organise a face-2-face meeting. The goal for a sales meeting may be to build enough rapport and trust to follow-up with a further meeting. Whatever it may be, hold clearly in your mind both the bigger picture goal and the sub-goal for this communication.

  1. Imagery – is also known as Visuallisation. For instance, for a presentation you may visualize yourself, in the suit or outfit you plan to wear, owning the room, moving between visual aids, speaking eloquently, interacting with the audience, sharing laughter, being conversational, relaxed and enjoying the process.

If you’re influencing an individual it might be picturing their office, walking in, shaking hands, having pleasant and personal small-talk before openly discussing and mutually exploring the issue at hand. Or perhaps handling elegantly and effectively the objections you expect from them.

I remember once feeling terribly nervous about a meeting that was to take place with my manager and a client. I had good relationships with both but was uncomfortable because I wasn’t used to having my manager witness my sales technique in action. After a few sleepless nights, the evening before the meeting as I ironed my shirt and planned my outfit, I suddenly got an image of how I would open the meeting, introduce the two of them, direct the flow of conversation, feeling cool, calm and in control all the way. And indeed the meeting went extremely well, with me taking a leadership role that I’d not taken previously in front of my manager, and that he commented on positively afterwards.

  1. Pre-performance routine – If you were setting up for a Conference Call, your pre-performance routine may involve arriving early, testing the technology, having someone call in from elsewhere to test it at their end, checking the participant list, having photos of all participants handy to remind you who’s there, checking your notes and reminding yourself of the opening, objective and agenda for the day.

For a presentation you might organize early access to the room. Spend some time setting up your slides and/or other visuals, notes, computer and water. Spread your visual aids out so there’s room to move. Walk around the empty chairs to check each person’s view.

This ritual will help with the visualization process and create comfort with the space, just like a cat rubbing up against the walls of a new room to smell it, sense it and put his own mark on it!

  1. Self-talk – This is the focus of our ‘Simply Influencing Ourselves’ workshop that I mention above and a potential series of blogs in its own right. The simplest tip I can offer in relation to self-talk is to find yourself a mantra that feels right for you. I have a close friend and colleague who uses the saying “I know what to say and when to say it”. I personally like “I feel calm, confident and in control”. I have another friend who says a prayer that always makes me laugh which is “Dear God, please let the right words come out and the wrong words stay in” . Find something that works for you.

In essence, there’s a powerful handful of mental techniques at your disposal that can dramatically shift your level of personal peace, your poise and ultimately the flavour and outcomes of all your daily interactions.

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