Recently, my graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School came to my office hours with these challenges:

  1. “I was always a comfortable public speaker. But a few years back, I had a panic attack while speaking and now I’m terrified to speak up.”
  2. “I get so nervous before a speech that I try to channel that energy into passion and wind up shouting at my audience. How do I use that energy in a more productive way?”
  3. “I’m such a bad speaker that I just want to get it over with when I’m up in front of an audience. How do I become more comfortable?”

I bet you can relate to this, even if you’re not a graduate student. In my experience, even the most senior business executives have similar challenges. Behind a facade of energy and enthusiasm often lies a carefully guarded secret: I’m not as confident as everyone thinks I am, and I’m constantly beating myself up about it.

My advice for all three students (as well as for the executives) is the same: close your eyes. Not during the speech itself, though.

I’m talking about mental rehearsal.

I learned about mental rehearsal years ago through Toastmasters and have found it to be one of the most powerful techniques I’ve ever used. Mental rehearsal is a practice tool used by athletes and musicians to sharpen their skills, especially when they are unable to physically practice due to injury or circumstance.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  • Imagine the setting where you will be giving your upcoming speech or presentation: the conference or meeting room.
  • Imagine you feel excited to speak.
  • Imagine warm applause as you walk up to the stage or supportive smiles as you make your way to the front of the room
  • Pause and breathe, smile, and make eye contact with your audience.
  • Then, deliver your speech or presentation in your mind, word for word.
  • Imagine the presentation going incredibly well.
  • Imagine the warm round of applause as you finish and the mixture of relief and pride you feel walking back to your seat.
  • Imagine someone coming up to you afterward to tell you how impactful your message was for them personally.

Here are the two best times to use mental rehearsal:

  1. First, the night before the event. If you are lying in bed, close your eyes and visualize the presentation right before falling asleep.
  2. Secondly, the day of the event. The morning of the presentation, or about 30 minutes before, use this technique. It will make you feel like you’ve already spoken and it’s gone well.

If you are trying to overcome a negative speaking event in the past, this technique helps build a new feeling of accomplishment through repetition.

If you are so nervous you cannot focus, this technique helps clear your mind and focus on the speech itself instead of your nerves.

In addition, challenge yourself to focus on the impact your message will have on each and every member of the audience rather than how you feel about speaking.

Practice mental rehearsal before a difficult conversation, presentation, or important meeting, and you can take control to ensure a powerful and positive outcome.