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If you’ve ever recorded yourself performing (and listened back) you’ve probably noticed how in many cases, your performance sounds a whole lot better than it felt like things were going in the moment.

And that’s certainly helpful to know – but it’d be nice if our experience in the moment wasn’t quite so crummy, no? Unfortunately, those days when we’re having a really positive experience onstage seem to happen so randomly…

Is there anything we can do to increase the possibility of having one of those good days on stage, where we’re in a more positive headspace during the performance, and maybe even enjoying ourselves?

There are a number of things that could help, but I recently came across a study that highlights one simple thing we can do.

Pre-performance imagery scripts

A British team of researchers (Hirsch, Mathews, Clark, Williams, & Morrison, 2006) recruited 60 university students and staff members to participate in a public speaking study.

Everyone started off with a short anxiety questionnaire, to get a baseline of their anxiety level.

Then, a third of the participants engaged in a negative imagery exercise, another third engaged in a positive imagery exercise, and the remaining third participated in a control imagery exercise.

Negative imagery

Participants in the negative imagery group were asked to recall a time when they had to give a speech to an audience, and were worried they wouldn’t do a good job.

They were then given five minutes to imagine giving a speech in that same context, where they perform terribly and the speech goes badly. After which they were asked to describe to the experimenter, as vividly as they could, all the details of this imagined failure, closing their eyes, and really imagining how they would look, sound, and perform in front of this crowd.

Positive imagery

Participants in the positive imagery group on the other hand, were asked to imagine a time when they felt like their speech was going to go really well, and to also identify what about the speech they thought would be so great. Then, they were asked to not only imagine giving that speech, and see it going awesomely, but to imagine and describe to the experimenter the “best possible outcome of giving the speech” as well.

Control imagery group

The control imagery participants were asked to recall, describe, and imagine an experience, in exactly the same way that the other participants did, except that their imagery was of a more neutral experience. Specifically, a shopping trip.

A speech!

Then, the participants were told that they would be given 30 seconds to prepare a 4-minute speech on the pros and cons of living in London. And that this speech would be videotaped, to be watched and evaluated later by a group of psychologists.

After their prep time was up, they delivered their speech to the camera, while the experimenter sat behind them.

A few assessments…

After finishing up their speech, they took the anxiety questionnaire once again. But instead of rating the anxiety they were feeling now, they were asked to rate the level of anxiety they felt during their speech.

They also rated their speaking performance from 0 to 10 (0=not at all good; 10=extremely good).

And also completed a negative thought questionnaire, which was basically to get a sense of how active their inner critic was during their speech. Like, how frequently did they have negative thoughts like “I could lose my train of thought” or “people could think I am boring” or “people might see I am nervous” while speaking? 

And how valid did they think these thoughts were? As in, when the thought about people seeing them become visibly nervous popped into their head, were they able to dismiss that? Or did they find themselves believing that the thought was true? That people really could see how nervous they were?

Lastly, they completed an 18-item “Behaviour Questionnaire.” This is an instrument used to evaluate some of the outwardly visible aspects of nerves and performance, and has a list of items like “confident,” “relaxed,” “sweating,” “blushing,” “uncomfortable,” and “awkward,” and you’re supposed to use a 0-8 scale (0=not at all; 8=extremely) to assign a score to each aspect of performance.

Evaluation of their speaking performance

And to get a sense of how accurate the participants’ self-perceptions of their performance might be, the researchers had a research assistant watch the videos and evaluate each performance using the Behaviour Questionnaire too.

So were there any differences between the negative and positive imagery groups?

Anxiety differences between the groups

Well, yes, there were indeed a few interesting differences.

For one, the participants who imagined a performance going poorly felt more anxious during their speech, than the participants who imagined a performance going well (42.17 vs. 33.92, where higher scores = more anxiety).

The negative imagery group also thought they performed worse than those in the positive imagery group (4.83 vs 6.25, where higher scores = better perceived performance) and also thought they came across as being more anxious (56.83 vs. 35.67, where higher scores = more visibly anxious).

Furthermore, the negative group experienced more frequent negative thoughts during their speech (40.33 vs. 26.83, where higher scores = more negative thoughts), and also reported that their intrusive thoughts felt more valid (37.17 vs. 18.08, where higher scores = thoughts feel more true), than those in the positive imagery group did.

Self-perception vs. reality

Meanwhile, there was quite a discrepancy between how participants thought they came across in their speech, and how nervous they appeared to an external observer.

Essentially, both groups thought they performed worse and came across as being more nervous than they actually did to the research assistant who evaluated their speeches.

However, the negative imagery group overestimated how badly their speech went to a significantly greater degree than the positive imagery group – with an average difference between self-rating and observer rating of 37 (negative group), compared to 21.93 (positive group).

So what are we to do with all of this?

Takeaways

There was a moment in one of the episodes of ESPN’s The Last Dance, where Michael Jordan asks a rhetorical question related to imagery and mindfulness – something like, “Why would I imagine missing a shot that I haven’t even taken yet?”

For me, the main takeaway of this study is that what we think about and imagine before a performance can carry over into our mental experience during the performance too. And indeed, why spend time envisioning something we don’t want to happen?

Of course, visualizing positive moments doesn’t necessarily come naturally. Especially backstage, when our thoughts tend to wander off to the bad place…

So even though it might feel a little silly to do so, taking a few minutes before lessons, rehearsals, or studio classes, to practice some positive imagery scripts like the one in this study, might be a good way to make it easier to get into a good headspace when you need to, and pave the way for more performances where it’s not just a positive experience for the audience, but for you the performer too.


References

Hirsch, C. R., Mathews, A., Clark, D. M., Williams, R., & Morrison, J. A. (2006). The causal role of negative imagery in social anxiety: A test in confident public speakers. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 37(2), 159–170. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2005.03.003

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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