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How to Prepare When You Absolutely Must Succeed

When success is the only option, here's what world-class performers do.
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Maybe you've finally landed a meeting to pitch key investors. Maybe you've finally scored a sales call with an enabling customer you've pursued for months. Or maybe you've been invited to deliver an important presentation at an industry conference.

When the stakes are high, most people simply worry more. A few know how to prepare differently. When the potential outcome isn't normal, your preparation shouldn't be normal, either--at least, not if you want to perform at your very best.

The following is from Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code (one of the few books I actually give to friends) and The Little Book of Talent (a book I've written about before) and a blog about performance improvement that should be on your must-read list.

Here's Coyle:

When it comes to approaching a major performance test, most of us follow advice that can be distilled into three words: Focus on success.

That is, we prepare ourselves by banishing doubt and visualizing the positive. We vividly imagine ourselves making all the right moves with fluid grace, with zero mistakes or missteps. And it feels good.

But that's not what the pros do.

What's interesting, though, is that when you look closely at world-class performers, most don't use this feel-good approach. In fact, they do the opposite--what you might call the feel-bad-first approach.

It goes like this: First, they focus on the mistakes and figure out, in detail, how they will react to them. Then they visualize the positive. A great example of this is the Green Berets, the U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers. Teams spend weeks training for a mission (most of which happen at night). On the day of the mission, they follow a two-part routine.

First, team members spend the entire morning going over every possible mistake or disaster that could happen during the mission. Every possible screwup is mercilessly examined and linked to an appropriate response: If the helicopter crash-lands, we'll do X. If we are dropped off at the wrong spot, we'll do Y. If we are outnumbered, we'll do Z.

After some hours of doing this, the team members take a break and have lunch together. They socialize, relax, and maybe take a nap. Then they spend the afternoon in Phase Two, talking about everything going exactly right. They review each move, visualizing each step, and vividly imagine it going 100 percent perfectly.

You might call this a Balanced-Positive Approach: equally split between negative and positive, and ending on the positive. Notice the complete wall of separation between the two phases. The team doesn't toggle back and forth between positive and negative. The two phases are kept as separate as night and day: First comes all negative, then all positive.

Many top performers (Steve Jobs and Peyton Manning jump to mind) embody this approach. Half the time, they are persnickety, chronically dissatisfied, negative, doubtful, obsessed with potential failures. The other half of the time, they're incredibly positive, confident performers.

This isn't surprising. The balanced-positive approach helps you avoid the pitfalls of positivity--namely, that you get surprised and demoralized by failure--by replacing it with a preparation that matches the reality of the world and also leaves you ready for performance. Good things and bad things will happen, and you can't control either. But you can prepare.

Now it's your turn.

Say you're making a sales call. Start with potential mistakes or mini disasters. What if your demo locks up? What if the meeting gets pushed back and you only get 10 minutes instead of 30? What if you're asked questions you can't answer? What if a key decision maker isn't in the room? Think of a number of likely--and even unlikely--scenarios and determine how you will handle them.

Then take a break.

And then come back and rehearse--but this time focus on everything going perfectly. Hit your marks. Roll through your demo. Nail your close.

That way, you won't go into the meeting worried or anxious. You'll go in confident, prepared--and truly prepared to succeed.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Mar 3, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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