How to to Stay Calm Under Pressure

Illustration: Sorbetto/iStockIllustration: Sorbetto/iStock

Everyone has had a day when anything that could go wrong did. It could be a disgruntled customer whose order was lost, followed by an angry client who didn’t receive a final contract on time. To top it off, while trying to sort out this mess you have a computer meltdown.

For me, it was the day of a major presentation I was slated to do for a new client. After doing one the week before for this company, I figured that the follow-up would be even better, now that I’d gotten the lay of the land.

As is my practice, I got there early—it’s always nice to feel calm and collected and have time to set up. But I arrived to find that the room assigned to me had been changed, and I hadn’t been informed. No one seemed to know which room I was supposed to present in, and the person who had invited me to participate was nowhere to be found. There I was, the clock ticking away, running around trying to find the room. Finally, someone came to my rescue and directed me to the correct location.

And then, for technical reasons beyond my control, my presentation wouldn’t open. The only other copy was with a person who couldn’t be found. There I was, participants waiting and no presentation.

What would you do at this point? Burst into tears? Give up and walk out? The best thing you can do is what I did: Take a deep breath, and do your best to make it work.

Here are the three tactics that helped me to stay cool under pressure.

1. Be mentally prepared

The fact is, anything can go off plan. “Expect the unexpected” should be one of your mantras. The only way to handle curve balls is by being mentally prepared for what you can control. Even though I would have preferred to make my presentation with the PowerPoint visuals, I had no problem going through it without them. I knew the content, virtually by heart.

2. Improvise

I may not be Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams or Larry David, the masters of improv. But having taught in a classroom for years and worked as a business presenter, I’ve learned how important it is to go with the flow.

Even if you don’t have this type of professional experience, there are plenty of daily life activities on which you can draw to help you think faster on your feet. Imagine, for example, you’re at a dinner party. The total stranger across the table says something to you that catches you by surprise. You take a moment; then respond. You move the conversation forward in the way you see fit.

This is what happens in any pressured circumstance. You advance the situation so that the tension eases or a solution presents itself—the key to improvisation is to simply add something new to the conversation.

3. Trust your instincts

So much of thinking on your feet is about trusting your instincts. The first thought that comes to mind is usually your best one. If isn’t, move on to the next idea.

Responding to your gut instinct and speaking will help avoid that “brain freeze.” But don’t be too hard on yourself if you do come up blank. We’re all overcome with nerves at some point. Divert your mental energy to another person, or to the situation—anything other than thinking about yourself and your tongue-tied moment!

Dr. Sandra Folk, business communications expert and founder of the Language Lab, understands how poor communication affects business and how costly it can be. She specializes in improving the business writing and presentation skills of executives and their employees. Clients from a range of industries include finance, real estate, insurance, engineering, and government. Her unique “practice over time” approach to learning ensures client success. As a published writer in the fields of education and journalism, she has authored textbooks and feature articles in prominent business publications.


What’s your strategy for staying calm under pressure? Let us know by commenting below.

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