Three things happen when you mentally freeze and wreck your motorcycle:
- You quickly take a physical inventory to see if all your body parts are intact (they never are),
- You quickly sneak a look to see if anyone saw you wreck (unfortunately, someone always has), and
- You quickly think of excuses for why you wrecked.
Unfortunately I had no excuses the first time I wrecked a motorcycle. I froze. I freaked out. I — shoot, pick any embarrassing verb. I had only started riding a few months before and I was going way too fast up a twisty mountain road when I reached a hairpin turn. I mentally froze, hitting the brakes but doing nothing else, and basically ran into the side of the mountain.
That, by the way, is an encounter the mountain always wins.
What happened? I didn’t choke because I lacked courage: In those days my bravery needle shot past “Bold” and “Reckless” to peg out at, “Could you possibly be a bigger idiot?”
I choked because I had not done the one thing that can ensure you never choke again:
Turn the unusual into usual and the abnormal into normal.
No, I didn’t just go all Zen on you. Here’s why.
We choke when we face an unusual, uncomfortable, confrontational, or scary situation and we don’t know what to do… and we freeze. Yet somehow in the very same situations other people don’t choke.
Whatever you call that sense of grace under pressure, some people are just born with it, right?
Some people do seem poised under pressure. But poise isn’t innate. Poise is a skill that anyone can develop.
Even me and 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 weren’t born with the right stuff.
You panic because 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, “OK. No problem. I know what to do.”
That’s why staying cool when things go wrong isn’t the result of bravery. Bravery, if you want to call it that, is knowing what to do when things go wrong… and then doing it.
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 enabling customer. The pressure to perform is incredibly high.
Here’s how to ensure you 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 most of your focus can be on reading and responding to the room instead of trying to remember what to do next.
Then think about the most likely questions or interruptions. Rehearse what you’ll do if the client wants to go back and 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, so make sure you’re so prepared the demo won’t feel like a stiff and formal presentation… but a great, relaxed conversation.
2. Then rework the basics.
Your initial practice results in a series of logical steps. To really know your stuff, change it up. Start with step 3. Start at the end and work backwards. Skip a couple of steps and go back to them later.
Rehearsing a different order helps reinforce your knowledge of your material and also prepares you for those inevitable moments when a 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…” because you’re totally prepared to get to that now. And you’ll know what to do next.
3. Practice the “What if?”
Once your presentation is in good shape, it’s time to prepare for things that could make you freeze.
What if your software locks up? Decide what you’ll do.
What if your client is delayed and you’re only given 15 minutes instead of 30? Decide how to shorten your presentation so you still hit the key points.
What if you get questions you aren’t able to answer? Decide how you’ll 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. The technique works for them and it can work for you.
You don’t need to make your product fail on cue so you can practice; just mentally rehearse how you’ll recover and adapt. You don’t need to get a few friends to role play hijacking your meeting; just imagine you’ve lost control, and picture what you’ll do to get it back.
visualisation is not only effective, it has a calming effect: Mentally watching yourself succeed is a great way to build confidence and self-assurance.
That’s especially true when you…
5. Create solution “shelves.”
Responding quickly is a skill that can be developed. That’s why military, police, and emergency workers train constantly: They don’t have to think on their feet when they’ve already done the thinking.
Dream up a problem, think of the solution, stick the solution on your mental solution shelf, and when you’re faced with that situation simply 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 assigned isn’t appropriate for your demo? Stick the answer on your shelf.
The more answers you prepare and shelve the more you can rehearse and visualise. Then instead of having to think on your feet you can just go into stimulus-response mode.
If that sounds like too much work, remember: Thinking on your feet is hard. Stimulus-response is easy.
6. Learn from close calls.
Say something goes wrong during the actual demo. Maybe your client didn’t notice you avoided misstep that could have ruined your presentation.
Don’t just walk away relieved. Think through what you could have done and add the solution to your mental shelf.
See close calls as gifts, because they let you learn painlessly.
7. Rinse and repeat everywhere.
You can apply this approach to almost any situation, 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.
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