Presentations

Start Early: Put Your Whole Mind into It

If you want to do your best possible work on an important presentation, start early. Don’t wait until the last minute and then cram; cram early then refine.

Imagine how much better your presentations would be if you had your own staff of brilliant but undisciplined and overly enthusiastic speechwriters to help you. You convene a meeting and lay out your overall message and an outline of your key points, then leave them to keep working on it while you do other things. While you’re doing something else, they continue working on it 24/7, dredging up long-forgotten information, making connections, and searching for new information. They may throw out dozens of ideas in rapid fire, most of which are bad or so-so, but occasionally one which is brilliant. The more time they have, the more ideas they come up with.

The catch is that whenever they come up with something they think is really good, they have to tell you immediately, even if you are in the middle of an important conversation, and more often than not they will actually walk in on you while you’re in the shower or wake you in the middle of a deep sleep.

That, in essence, describes the relationship between your conscious mind and your unconscious. Your conscious mind is the CEO of your thoughts, and the only part of them of which you’re aware. The vast majority of our “thinking” is taking place in our unconscious mind. Our unconscious mind is far busier than we know. By definition, we’re not conscious of its thoughts, but it’s always working even if we’re not aware of what it’s doing.

I’ve always understood this via my own practical experience, without having a clear grasp of the neuroscience behind it. It happens to me all the time. I outline my presentation or blog post, wrestle with the first draft, then set it aside. But then, I will get a flash of insight—a fully-formed thought that makes perfect sense, or maybe just another way of saying something, or a fresh angle on the problem. It happens most when I’m in the shower, driving, or sleeping. I can’t will it to happen, but it happens so regularly that there must be something going on.

There is, and John Bargh explains it very clearly in his book, Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do.

There’s a lot of fascinating material in the book, but the key point relative to presentations is that when your mind wanders it’s not aimless or random—it’s actually very goal-directed. It hates leaving things undone. What’s fascinating is that when you consciously think about a problem certain regions of your brain are activated. When you think you’ve stopped thinking about it, those same regions stay activated, indicating that your mind is still working on the problem. That means that while you can’t control your unconscious, you can direct it.

And your unconscious is so much more powerful than your conscious in several ways, all of which can improve your presentation if you give it time. It digs out stuff you forgot you knew; it makes unexpected connections; processes infinitely faster; and it tunes your attention to relevant information in your environment. (Like when you’re considering buying a certain car model, you suddenly notice so many more of them on the road.)

Here are a few suggestions for tapping the full potential of your unconscious:

  • It works best when you have a clear goal. For a presentation, deciding on your theme is a great way to plant a flag to inspire it to action.
  • Put in some good hard quality time up-front, thinking carefully about your points and supporting evidence.
  • Don’t overdo the early cramming. Your unconscious works best when the job is incomplete.
  • Write it down ASAP, or your unconscious will think you don’t care and forget about it. I’m old school, which is why I carry a Moleskine with me everywhere I go.
  • Give your mind room to roam. Put down your phone once in a while and get comfortable with your own thoughts.
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