by Niall Doherty

I can do it.

Yes, I can!

I’m going to crush it. Come on!

I am fantastically awesome and I will succeed. I will succeed. I will succeed.

Wait, not so fast…

Those first four lines demonstrate the kind of self-talk most sales and success gurus advocate. The traditional advice is that, whenever you have a big scary task ahead, you should pump yourself up. Tell yourself over and over again that you can and you will. Emphasize the positive, leave no room for doubt.

Unfortunately, this approach has been proven to NOT work very well.

Below I’ll share with you some recent findings from social science, and give you a better approach for handling and succeeding at big scary tasks. Whether you’re preparing for a job interview, a sales call, a confrontation with a bully, or just trying to work up the nerve to ask out the cutie at the coffee shop, this should see you right.

Pale nude / dune leap

Three researchers1 conducted a series of experiments back in 2010. One of them went like this:

Participants were given ten anagrams to solve. For example, they had to rearrange the letters in “cone” to spell “once”, and the letters in “mush” to spell “____”

The participants were divided into two groups, and both groups were given identical instructions and treated exactly the same except for one key difference: A minute before they were handed their assignment sheets, Group A was instructed to tell themselves that they would solve the puzzles, while Group B was instructed to ask themselves if they would solve the puzzles.

Got that?

  • Group A told themselves, “I can!”
  • Group B asked themselves, “Can I?”

So what happened?

On average, Group B solved 50% more anagrams than Group A.

Crap dice / ____  ____

In another experiment, the same researchers added a slice of misdirection ahead of the anagram exam. They told new participants that they were first interested in studying their handwriting practices, and gave them a sheet of paper to write down twenty times one of the following:

  • Will I
  • I will
  • I
  • Will

Afterwards, everyone was given a sheet of anagrams to solve.

What happened this time?

Pretty much the same thing. People who had written “Will I” solved almost twice as many anagrams as those who’d written one of the alternatives.

Many more experiments were done to confirm this pattern: Those who engage in interrogative self-talk before a task consistently outperform those who engage in declarative self-talk.

Asking yourself if you can trumps telling yourself that you can.

Okay, but why?

Good question. I read about the above research in Daniel Pink’s excellent book, To Sell Is Human. Pink goes on to provide two reasons why interrogative self-talk works so well.

To Sell Is HumanPrimarily, it’s because self-interrogation elicits answers. Instead of simply telling yourself that you can do it, you’re forced to come up with some reasons as to why. Pink gives the example of making a sales presentation. You could spend time in advance telling yourself that you’re the bomb-dizzle and that you’re going to kill it, but at best that will just give you a short-lived emotional boost.

Alternatively, by asking yourself in advance if you’ve really got what it takes to make an effective presentation, you bring to mind all the prep work you did, specific tactics and strategies you want to adhere to, and your motivation for making the pitch in the first place.

At worst with the self-interrogation approach, you realize that you’re not as prepared as you’d like to be, and you can then take steps to rectify that before the presentation.

As Pink puts it: “Mere affirmation feels good and that helps. But it doesn’t prompt you to summon the resources and strategies to actually accomplish the task.”

How can you use this?

Next time you’ve got a big scary task ahead or goal to accomplish, don’t try to pump yourself up with positive affirmations. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve really got what it takes to succeed.

But don’t just ask the question. You also need to answer it. As Pink recommends…

Answer it–directly and in writing. List five specific reasons why the answer to your question is yes. These reasons will remind you of the strategies that you’ll need to be effective on the task, providing a sturdier and more substantive grounding than mere affirmation.

So, tell me, have you got what it takes?

Let me know in the comments.

P.S. Two things real quick:

  1. Will you be in Bangkok on September 7th? If you’re interested in self-publishing, drop into Chris Backe’s workshop. Chris has self-published several books and makes a living from his writing. You can use promo code NIALLROCKS to get a 500 Baht discount on the workshop. (I won’t be there myself unfortunately; sticking it out in Hong Kong until the end of September.)
  2. If you’re curious, here’s what my morning routine is like in Hong Kong, with thanks to Ben for featuring me on there.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracín, and Kenji Noguchi, “Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense,” Psychological Science 21, no. 4 (April 2010): 499– 504.
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