Mental Preparation: Look for What Sparkles

As a coaching psychologist I’m often asked for tips on mental preparation for interviews, exams or presentations. Recently I was asked for help on something that didn’t really fit any of those categories and so I used a technique that I used in coaching, called ‘looking for what sparkles’.

Personal Resourcefulness

At the beginning of the first coaching session I spend a little time finding about about how you like to spend your time. It’s not idle chit-chat. What I’m looking for is a topic where you come alive more. So that might be flower arranging, baking, horse-riding or what ever else ‘floats your boat’. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s somewhere or doing something where you lose sense of yourself and feel more resourceful. Once you have discovered what sparkles in your life, you can transfer it to another less resourceful area or task.

Learning by Association

We learn by making associations between concepts, ideas, thoughts and events (classical conditioning). Think about Pavlov’s somewhat cruel experiments with dogs at feeding time. The dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with food and eventually would salivate over the mere sounding of the bell. One of the most evocative aromas in British culture is the small of fish and chips. We can’t help pass a chip shop and have positive memories flooding back of family holidays and so on. We can use this innate ability to make associations to prepare for new challenges.

The Luxury of Learning

Having taken a fair few exams one of the importance of the context of learning was perhaps the most important thing I learned. In academic coaching I work with students who haven’t yet made the connection between attitude and knowledge retention. They resent the time spent revising for exams when they could be out enjoying life’s many luxuries. I suggest that learning is a luxury. Everything above basic survival is a luxury.  We then discuss ways to make studying more enjoyable. Now for me that was getting in some great coffee and biscuits and creating a really comfortable place to learn. Resentment acts as a barrier to learning. If you let go of the resentment and realize that learning is a luxury and will lead to further luxuries, this positive mental attitude makes learning easier. If you remove the block to learning then ironically you don’t have to spend so much time and working so hard to force the new information in. Context is a vital component of learning. The positive attitude and the positive environment become encoding with the information.

Preparing for New Challenges

One of the main techniques I use for exam preparation  is active rehearsal of the material. I don’t just sit down with the books and try to cram the knowledge in. Not only is it more passive it’s usually quite boring. Instead, I give lectures or presentations to an empty room! I pretend I have an audience and with just a handful of flash-cards or a few brief notes, I stand up and talk to my imaginary group for 20 minutes. If I struggle I can look at my notes but I can’t stop until the 20 minutes is up. What this does is put me under a mild amount of stress and forces me ‘think on my feet’. As new connections occur spontaneously they are added to existing information. Understanding deepens and it becomes more memorable.

Another way it which we can prepare mentally, is to learn the material while we are doing something we love doing. So if you’re preparing for an interview and you love baking, then combine the two. If you’ve got a presentation, rehearse it on horseback. Or it may be something as simple as going for a walk in nature. This is a great way to generate new ideas, connections and associations. Research has shown that a humble walk in the park can help to boost self-esteem (and confidence). You achieve the same by combining learning with something that you love doing.

The new information takes on a positive association with what sparkles in your life and so is easier to recall. Then once you have worked everything out in your head, you can take a more formal approach of dressing up as you would for the presentation, interview or exam and use the ‘lecture to an empty room approach’ and talk for 20 minutes.

Finally, when studying or preparing for anything, never underestimate the effects of a relaxation.

The Importance of Relaxation

When we are stressed we switch to survival mode which tends to narrow our range of thoughts and behaviours. When we are relaxed, that range is broadened. The effects of working with what sparkles in your life is that you are more likely to be in a relaxed state and are able to tap into a broader range of emotions and cognitions. In short, you are more resourceful. So never underestimate the benefits of taking two minutes out of your busy schedule to take a few, long, slow deep breaths. It will give you a physical, emotional and mental boost.

So there you have it. Mental preparation is about exploiting a few key, innate learning abilities. Relax, adopt a positive mental attitude and use the associations of what sparkles in your life to create positive context for new learning.



Oops! Not Practising What I Preach? (Common Courtesy, Manners & Body Language).

I occasionally do media briefings when it’s a positive story and when it’s well supported by psychological evidence. Recently I contributed to a briefing on survey findings into the decline of manners and common courtesy in the 21st Century. Overall, my take on it, was that manners and common courtesy provide those daily little uplifts that can counter the petty daily hassles. Also, that it’s important to recognise that manners and etiquette change over time. So, for instance, saying ‘pardon me’ when you don’t hear what someone has said is not necessarily relevant. After all, why should we be saying ‘pardon me, oh Lord and Master, please don’t cut my head off for nor hearing you. er. . .especially when you’re mumbling’. It’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘Would you say that again please?’ It’s also not necessarily bad manners that younger people don’t go around ‘doffing’ their baseball caps.

However, looking back on the video (see link below), I notice that my body language is all wrong. I look uncomfortable, which I was. The seating was rather like an ironing board, and if you notice, the presenter has learned to sit in a way that allows him to cling on to the back rest. I also recall the time when working on a morning ‘confessional’ chat show. Uncomfortable straight back chairs were on stage. When I asked why, the producer told me that the chairs ‘forced out the body language’. In order words, it made people less comfortable and changed the body language. People could look shifty and defensive, which thankfully I didn’t on this occasion, but it wasn’t because they had anything to hide. Instead, they didn’t have arm rests, were in front of a studio audience, in a chilly studio with hot lights, and sitting on a chair guaranteed to wipe the smile from anybody’s face. The context was saying far more than their awkward movements. It’s just that the staging was less obvious.

So, now to my next faux pas in the video: I don’t shut up! Now this is down to four things: I was frightened of sliding off the chair and was bunched in a corner; they seated me directly opposite the presenter and he just kept talking to me; we’d just done 15 back-to-back radio interviews and I was on a bit of a roll; and, well, I just love to talk.

My other faux pas was to make a negative comment about ‘shopping channel presenters’ and I’ll let you guess from the fleeting reaction of the presenter what his other job is. Oops! (see link below).

So, I’m eager to point out that body language is all about context, rather than being accused of not practising what I preach.


Has Britain Got a Talent for Spite?

Following the aftermath of the Britain’s Got Talent final, I’ve been asked for quotes and analyses of the whole Susan Boyle phenomenon, with the news that she is suffering from exhaustion and allegedly being assessed until the Mental Health Act. Given that one  in four of us will suffer some form of mental health problem, it’s important to put it all into context. An assessment is different from a diagnosis.

I’ve been asked if I thought Susan Boyle’s behaviour was ‘weird’ after the result. Reporters and presenters have commented that she didn’t make eye contact with Ant and Dec and even showed her leg, which apparently was disturbing. Had it been a 28 year old showing a leg, I doubt whether the same comments would be made. Again, let’s put it into context. Looking at the footage, we can see that she smiled and applauded Diversity, and was very gracious. As for her ‘strange behaviour’. It’s important to acknowledge that she has had little or no media training. Ant and Dec make it look effortless but they have been in the spotlight for nigh on 20 years. Again, it seems that the body language brigade and spouting its usual bullshit. Susan’s Boyle’s body language was not different from most people in her situation. And as for the wiggling and leg flashing, well wasn’t that intended as a bit of fun? Do we all do strange things in strange circumstances? Also, reports of her back stage tantrum have more than likely been greatly exaggerated. Even a seasoned professional would not be a model of composure given the same amount of pressure.

It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions and interpret any behaviour as symptoms of ‘mental illness’ once you’ve made up your mind that someone is mad! There’s a classic 1970s study where researchers went undercover and pretended to have mental health problems, and made notes throughout their assessment. The only people who realised they were faking it were the real patients. One of the interesting outcomes was that the phrase ‘patient engages in writing behaviour’. So, the field notes had become a symptom!

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Susan Boyle phenomenon was the run up the final with news reports of her verbally abusing strangers in the hotel lobby at which she was staying. But although they were strange, they weren’t strangers. They were journalists deliberating goading Susan Boyle to lose her temper so they could get a story and spoil her chances in the competition. It seems that sometimes, Britain has a talent for spite. I lose count of the vile text jokes I’ve seen and cruel cartoons. Let’s again put this into context. She entered a talent contest, she’s not war criminal! I think it’s sad that we can’t just be happy that someone is enjoying success.

The question has also been raised as to if Susan Boyle has been looked after properly by the producers of the show. The answer is a qualified no. But who could have predicted the reaction to the original audition with an unprecedented number of hits on YouTube in such a short space of time? Also, we have to recognise that all reality TV is basically exploitative. However, hopefully she will be looked after and supported and given the coaching and training she needs to deal with the media spotlight, as well as carry on with her new career.

I wish her every sucess and I know the well-wishers outnumber the ‘haters’ because although her story has shed a light on the more unseemly side of the British psyche, it also represents what none of us can live without: Hope!