In 1992 at the NBA basketball championship, the Portland Trailblazers were lagging behind the Chicago Bulls. After a brief timeout and pep talk from their coach, Michael Jordan re-entered the basketball court with a heightened sense of awareness and concentration.
In the next 18 minutes, he managed to land a slam dunk a total of 6 times in a row which surprised even him. He later described this experience as being “in the zone” – a phrase commonly used to describe a state of intense concentration and high performance.
This experience isn’t limited to sports though. Artists, writers, dancers, performers, even electricians and engineers have experienced this state of awareness. Chances are, you have too, at least once in your life.
What is “Flow” in Psychology?
In psychology, this mental state is referred to as “flow” or a state of optimal performance. It’s basically the mental sweet spot that exists between boredom and anxiety which, when applied to a task, allows you to perform a task at your best.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high] a Hungarian psychologist coined the term “flow” in the 1970s when he became fascinated by watching the high-intensity performances of artists who were so lost in their work that they lost track of time, their surroundings and even tuned out urges to eat, drink and sleep.
He began researching this performative phenomenon and noted it also happened to scientists, engineers, technicians and athletes.
In his research, he called this experience a “state of flow” and described it as a state of hyper-focus and complete engagement that resulted in the optimal performance of any task.
You’ve likely experienced a state of flow in your life without realizing it. Have you been so engrossed in a task that the hours seemed to pass like minutes? That’s a side effect of the flow state.
Once thought to be just a theory, research by neuroscientists has provided evidence that the flow state isn’t just a figment of our imagination, our brains really do alter their function and chemistry when we enter a state of flow that helps us to perform at our best.
Csikszentmihalyi outlined several characteristics of the flow state that he consistently encountered in his research:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- A feeling of reward from completing the task;
- A sense of effortlessness and ease;
- A feeling of control over the task.
So, we know that this Csikszentmihalyi guy was smart, but can we apply his principles of flow theory to level up our performance when we give presentations?
Tips For Finding Your Flow When Presenting
Csikszentmihalyi noted in his research that there are certain conditions necessary for achieving a state of flow in any task we apply ourselves to. We can use them as guiding points for creating the optimal environment for reaching a flow state when we present.
Set clear goals for your presentation
Essential to flow are clear goals and a sense of progress. This makes sense if you think about it. Knowing what you want to achieve before you set out to achieve it sharpens and refines your concentration and focus.
Make sure you’ve defined clear goals for what you want to achieve with your presentation.
What is your primary goal or objective for your presentation? If there was only one thing your audience did in response to your presentation, what would it be? If there was a single key takeaway from your talk that you want your audience to take with them, what would it be?
Knowing where you want to be will help you map out how to get there, and can help reinforce your focus when you’re on that stage or in front of a room of execs you’re pitching to.
Add an element of challenge
To achieve a state of flow, the challenge must match the perceived skills. To put it simply, the activity must ignite a sense of personal challenge in the person undertaking it to achieve a flow state.
If the task is too easy, the person will experience boredom or apathy, and if it’s too challenging they’ll experience frustration and anxiety, both affecting performance.
Part of finding your flow when presenting is about meeting that challenge head-on and overcoming it. This means the presentation you’re giving should be challenging you in some way. Of course, not every presentation you’ll give holds the same weight in reality, but that doesn’t mean you can’t perceive it that way.
You can raise your performance by raising the stakes.
Think about what would happen if your presentation fails to achieve what you want it to? What have you, or your audience got to lose? What do you, or they, gain if it succeeds? Defining what’s at stake in an all-or-nothing mentality creates a challenge for you – and your performance – to rise to.
A complete sense of focus on the task is vital for finding your flow when presenting. Of course, we’re not always in control of the environment we present in. Ringing cell phones, buffering videos or freezing presentations are possible distractions we have little control over.
But we do have control over how we react to our environment and people. Remember why you’re there and what your goals are. Tune out secondary noises and unimportant details.
It’s just you and your audience – nothing else matters.
Make it enjoyable
On top of a sense of challenge, a sense of enjoyment is integral to a state of flow. Some people might define mowing their lawn as a challenging task (we sympathise), but unless it’s something you love to do (we’re betting it’s not), you’re not likely to achieve a state of flow when doing it.
Delivering a presentation should produce some feelings of enjoyment in you to find your flow when presenting. If you’re a beginner, or you’re naturally more shy or averse to public speaking, that’s totally ok.
The more you practice, the better you’ll become. The better you become, the more you’ll enjoy it.
So there you have it. Set goals for your presentation, identify and create a challenge you need to overcome, eliminate unnecessary distractions and derive a sense of enjoyment or fulfillment from presenting, and soon you’ll be reaping the benefits of flow theory on every stage. Michael Jordan would be proud.