You're on stage. Three hundred pairs of eyes are fixed on you. You're killing: Twenty minutes in and the audience is in the palm of your hand.
Then your slide show freezes up.
Your skin tingles. Your body tenses. You stammer. Your eyes dart back and forth from the audience to the screen to your laptop to the stage manager in the wings.
You fall apart.
As Beilock and Carr describe it, "Pressure raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly, which increases the attention paid to skill processes and their step-by-step control. Attention to execution at this step-by-step level is thought to disrupt well-learned or proceduralized performances."
Or, as those of us less learned describe it, you choke.
Still, some how, some way, in the very same situation, other people don't choke. What do they have that we don't?
Maybe it's coolness under fire. Maybe it's what the more colorful call knowing what to do when the crap hits the fan. Whatever you call that sense of grace under pressure, some people are just born with it, right?
Some people do seem naturally confident and poised under pressure. But poise isn't natural. Poise is a skill that some people develop.
People like you.
How? Let's start with a basic premise. When you panic, you don't freak out because you lack bravery or courage. You don't lose your cool because you aren't born with the right stuff.
You panic because you face an uncomfortable situation and you don't know what to do. You freeze because you haven't done the work to change, "Oh-my-God-this-can-NOT-be happening-to-me-right-now..." into, "Oops. That's unfortunate. Oh well. No problem. I know what to do."
That's why hanging tough when things go wrong isn't the result of bravery. Bravery is the result of knowing what to do and how to do it when things go wrong. Thinking clearly and staying at the top of your game is easy when you've actually practiced for the worst.
And that's why the key to maintaining your poise during even the most stressful situations is to gain experience. Not just any experience, though; the right kind of experience, the kind that builds confidence.
For example, say you're scheduled to do a product demo for an important customer. The pressure is high because your business is struggling and if you don't land this customer you might have to let some employees go.
Here's how to ensure you can stay cool--no matter what happens:
1. Practice the basics.
Run through your demo a number of times. Smooth out the kinks. Make sure you know it cold.
Make sure you can perform it on autopilot--in a good way--so that some of your focus can be applied to reading the room instead of wondering, "Okay, what do I do next?"
Then think about the most likely questions or interruptions. Rehearse what you'll do if the client wants to see a certain function again. Rehearse what you'll do if the client wants to know how a certain function applies to their processes. From the customer's point of view, the best demos are interactive and informal--make sure you're ready to present the demo as a conversation rather than a presentation.
2. Then rework the basics.
All your initial practice will result in a set of logical steps: 1, 2, 3... To really know your stuff, change it up. Start with step 5. Start at the end and work backwards. Skip a couple of steps.
Rehearsing a different order helps reinforce your knowledge of your material and also prepares you for those inevitable moments when the client says, "That sounds good so far... but what I really want to know is this."
When that happens you won't need to say, "We'll get to that later," and frustrate your client because you're fully prepared to get to it now.
3. Practice the "What if?"
Once your presentation is in good shape it's time to prepare for things that could cause you to freeze. What if your software locks up? Figure out what you'll do. What if your client is delayed and you only get 10 minutes instead of 30? Decide how to shorten your presentation so you still hit key points. What if you get questions you aren't able to answer? Decide how you will respond.
Go ahead; go crazy. Think of some outlandish scenarios and decide how you'll handle them. It's actually kind of fun.
Athletes mentally rehearse; they imagine themselves performing an action. It works for them--and can work for you.
There's no need to make your product fail on cue so you can practice what to do. Just rehearse it in your mind. There's no need to get a few friends to role play hijacking your meeting so you can rehearse how you'll respond. Just picture it happening, and picture what you'll do.
Not only is visualization effective, it also has a calming effect: Picturing yourself succeeding is a great way to build confidence and self-assurance.
That's especially true if you:
5. Create solution shelves.
Responding quickly is a skill that can be developed; that's why the military, police, and emergency workers train relentlessly. There's no need to think on your feet if you've already done the thinking. Stick your solutions on mental shelves, and when you're faced with a tough situation, reach for the solution.
Go back to your "What If" scenarios. If a key employee doesn't show, what's the solution? Stick the answer on your shelf. What if price is an issue before you even get a chance to start? Stick the answer on your shelf. What if the room you're shown into isn't appropriate for the demo? Stick the answer on your shelf.
The more answers you prepare and shelve, the more you can rehearse and visualize. Instead of having to think on your feet, it's stimulus-response.
Stimulus-response is easy.
6. Learn from close calls.
Say something goes wrong; your client doesn't notice, but you realize it was a close call that could have ruined the presentation. Don't just walk away relieved. Think through what you could have done--and add the solution to your mental shelf.
Close calls are like gifts, because they let you learn painlessly.
7. Rinse and repeat everywhere.
You can apply this approach to almost any situation, whether business or personal: Giving feedback, pitching investors, disciplining employees, dealing with confrontation, playing a sport, starting and building relationships... it doesn't matter.
You don't need to be brave. Just take a systematic approach to developing skills and gaining confidence.
Do the work and bravery, composure, and coolness under fire are unnecessary.