The way that you think and feel about presenting – “the inner game” – has a profound effect on your success as a presenter and speaker. The term “inner game” was coined by Timothy Gallwey in his classic book “The Inner Game of Tennis”:

“There is always an inner game being played in your mind no matter what outer game you are playing. How aware you are of this game can make the difference between success and failure in the outer game.”

Why confidence is not the goal you should aim for

You may think that the goal of the inner game of presenting is to be confident. But it’s not a useful mental state to aim for. Here are some dictionary definitions of confidence:

“Feeling of reliance or certainty”

“Boldness, fearlessness”

That implies the absence of fear. That’s unrealistic because of the nature of presenting and public speaking. It is inherently a stressful and risky activity. You’re on show, some people may judge you. You have good reason to be nervous.

Not only is it unrealistic to aim for zero fear, having some fear is helpful. Professional performers acknowledge the edge that fear gives them. Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac says she gets worried if she’s not nervous! Her fear benefits her performance (J Seligmann and M Peyser “Drowning on Dry Land” Newsweek 123 (May 23, 1994): 64-66).

Paradoxically letting go of the fantasy of being confident will allow you to enjoy presenting more.

The magic of “Flow”

Instead of confidence aim for “Flow”. The concept of Flow was first articulated by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Csikszentmihalyi describes Flow as:

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

In the diagram below, Csikszentmihalyi shows how Flow relates to the challenge level and your skill level. You’ll note that “Control” in the middle of the right hand side is where the task is of a medium challenge level and you have high skills. That’s probably more synonymous with confidence.


Here’s a specific example of Flow from Csíkszentmihályi:

“It can be very stressful at times. A mountain climber, for example, may be close to freezing, utterly exhausted, and in danger of falling into a bottomless crevasse, yet he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Ok, not sure I’d like to be there – but transpose the situation to presenting. There’s a challenge, but you’re meeting it. You’re being stretched, but you’re managing the stretch. And when you’re in flow, you’re enjoying yourself. That’s what you should be aiming for.

The Goldilocks effect

It can be difficult to achieve Flow when you’re presenting because it requires just the right level of challenge. Not too much challenge – that has you feel overwhelmed, and not too little, because that has you be complacent. This is reflected in the stress-performance curve:

Stress-performance curve

This is a classic curve in psychology known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. You need just the right amount of stress to perform at your best.

Tame the voices in your head

The No 1 way to reach the sweet spot of optimal performance is to tame the voices in your head. Yes, those voices which are talking to you right now. They may be saying to you:

“Oh, this is all old hat, I know all of this. I’m not learning anything new.” or

“Oh this interesting. I hadn’t thought about it this way before.”

If the first voice is dominant you’re probably feeling disappointed and annoyed at having wasted time reading this post. But if you’re hearing the second voice you’ll be feeling engaged and excited to read more. In both cases you’re doing the same thing – reading this post – but because your voices are different, you’re feeling different. This is the critical concept:

When you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel

This is not positive thinking!

I’m not talking about positive thinking. Positive thinking is not sophisticated enough for managing the inner game of presenting. It’s not as simple as replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts.

Negative thoughts can sometimes be helpful. For instance, a negative thought about your upcoming presentation might be “I’m worried about people asking me questions I should know the answer to.” This type of negative thought will cause you to review your knowledge ahead of the presentation, and so you’ll be better prepared. As long as you don’t obsess over it, that’s helpful.

And positive thoughts are not always helpful. A positive thought such as “I’m good at winging presentations” is likely to get you into big trouble one day, when you fail to prepare and bomb!

Rational thinking

A more helpful distinction is between rational thinking and irrational thinking. And there’s a massive bedrock of knowledge, underpinned by research, to help you implement rational thinking. This field of knowledge is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s the gold standard for treatment of severe social anxiety and depression. Over the last eight years I’ve been teaching a simplified version of CBT to presenters and public speakers to help them manage the inner game of presenting. It’s effective and long-lasting.

What stops you from experiencing Flow?

I’m now writing a workbook to be able to help more people. To make the workbook as useful as possible for you, I’d like to find out what are the major concerns you have with public speaking or presenting. To let me know take this 5-question survey:

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