Somewhere out there, someone is reading this to get that last tip in preparation for a pivotal career event.
Someone else is reading it frustrated at what didn’t go their way, and looking to figure out how to do better next time.
And still others are considering what their next big event will be, and want to maximize it when it gets here.
We all find ourselves in make or break moments, and most of us feel the pressure. Intensely. Nothing is more nerve-inducing than facing high stakes, when our potential is even higher if we perform at our best.
It could be a presentation to the executive team, or the pitch to land your largest customer deal ever. It could be your first closing argument in court or a meeting with a venture capital firm to get your first million. Or perhaps, with a new year approaching, it’s nailing a job interview so you can start 2012 in the position of your dreams.
No matter the situation, you know it when you’re there. So how do you stay focused to be at your best when it matters the most?
The human body needs a combination of physical and mental conditioning to perform. You need to take care of yourself all the time if you want to be great some of the time.
Tony Schwartz writes extensively on this topic, and one of his early articles in Harvard Business Review sums it up aptly by describing executives as corporate athletes. He and co-author Loehr posit that leaders must spend as much effort on renewing energy as they do expending it. Specifically, they relate it to how athletes train, which includes physical, mental and spiritual aspects. Leaders should emulate this model, and pay heed to the link between mental and physical performance.
Yes, this sounds preachy but think about it – you would never expect an athlete who doesn’t exercise, runs on limited sleep, and fuels with junk food to focus and excel on command. And yet this is exactly the regimen many professionals are training under. This might work for a while, but not if you want to be on your game for the longer term.
This physical conditioning is the underpinning that helps all performance, and creates an optimal environment for mental focus. But we all know there’s a large and looming on-demand, stress management aspect that threatens to derail even the best training. If you find yourself wishing you could have a tried and true A-game no matter the circumstances — or nerves — read on for what I’ve seen work:
1) Know the players. Much stress comes from not knowing, and the more knowledge you walk in with, the better you’ll feel. Learn everything you can about the people you’ll be meeting with. The more you know about the history and dynamics of the people involved, the better you’ll be able to anticipate the questions you’ll be asked.
On the day of, get there early so you can make small talk and gauge the room before you begin. As a bonus, this can help assuage nerves as you turn the faces into real people with whom you’ve found a connection point.
2) Go through the motions. Don’t underestimate the importance of creating muscle memory in preparation. Know the points you want to make and practice them out loud. The goal isn’t to sound rehearsed, but to know your points well enough to be conversational. Rehearse your tone, cadence, and body language. For big group events, it’s helpful to stage the meeting ahead of time to determine who sits where, and how to hand-off different parts of the presentation so it flows naturally. Walk the area if you can.
3) Visualization. This comes up in the article mentioned above, and for good reason. The ability to visualize your success has been shown to improve your chances of achieving it. (Or as Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”) Mentally go through a perfect scenario for how the meeting will go, including your peak performance. This should be an ongoing internal movie that you view a few times before the actual event.
4) Find your pre-game ritual. Create your own pre-game ritual – something that helps pump you up and makes you feel positive before walking into a big meeting. For me, I use laughter. If I’ve just been laughing and talking about something fun, I will carry those feelings into the meeting. So I use the drive to an important event to laugh and trade entertaining stories with the other folks I’m going with, or if I’m alone I’ll call a friend. Some people like to listen to their favorite rock band, or even relax quietly. Find what works and keep doing it.
5) Don’t fight your nerves, detach from them. As a communications coach, I can tell you with conviction that even the most polished presenters feel anxiety and nervousness. As do rock stars, actors, famous CEOs, politicians, and anyone else in the public spotlight who also happens to have a pulse. At times anxiety can come from out of nowhere — it certainly does for me. What great performers have is not the ability to eliminate nerves, but to succeed in spite of them.
Repeat after me: I can feel nervous and still bring my A game.
Don’t even try to fight your nerves, you’ll lose. When you’re just about to go into the meeting or event, and your shoulders tighten, hands shake, heart thumps –notice it, and then let it go. Don’t let these normal physical reactions to a stressful event spiral you into more anxiety. No need to suppress the feeling (as if you could anyway). Use the age-old technique and breathe deeply — four counts in and out. Focus on your visualization and practice the pre-game ritual.
And if nerves hit you in the middle of a key event, have “safety content” you can pull out that you’re most comfortable with. It could be a story, anecdote, data, case study, a question for the room to elicit response, or anything else you personally enjoy discussing.
Then get out there and wow them.
Have other tips for performing at your best? Comment here or @kristihedges. Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker, and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others.
(This post also appears on Forbes.com.)