The Pressure is on. Do you EXPLODE or SHINE?

Pressure.  We feel it every time we have an IMPORTANT meeting or a BIG presentation. These are the moments that we lose sleep over.  Our heart begins to race, our palms sweat, or minds begin racing, our legs become weak, our stomach does flips. We are like a balloon being forced with more and more pressure until it is ready to burst. And, then, once we finally “get through” the BIG IMPORTANT moment, we lose even more sleep tallying all the things we could have done better!

I, myself, am in the beginnings of that cycle right now! Tomorrow night I will perform a 45-minute completely improvised comedy show with Jay Sukow.

The voice in my head: “This HAS to be good! Jay is an awesome veteran improviser from Chicago that you admire. He agreed to perform with ME! This is BIG. This is just me and Jay for twice as long as my normal shows. This is IMPORTANT. I have to be PERFECT. I CAN’T screw this up!”

Most likely the voice in your head right now: “So? You do improv all the time! Who’s Jay Sukow, anyway? Never heard of him. You are great. You’ll be great!”

I also see it every month in my Vistage meetings. Vistage is an organization that helps executives reach their full potential as leaders.  Each month, one of the very experience and accomplished leaders in our group presents about themselves and their company and, invariably, they begin apologizing for their presentation before they even begin. They are nervous and have spent the morning psyching themselves out. By the time they present they are someone we barely recognize and we get all the facts from A VERY SERIOUS IMPORTANT PERFECT PERSON. Afterwards, i imagine they spend the 30 minute drive home, all of dinner, and most of the night being glad it’s over, evaluating what they could have done better, and beating themselves up over what they “messed up.”

Sound familiar? We all do it. And, yes, I do improvise all the time and that does help lessen the pressure to do well (see #4 below) but that pressure never fully goes away. I still tell myself that this time is more serious and more important than the other times and this is the time i will really prove my worth. Ugh, how exhausting and defeating!

Here are four things you can do that will help you be less focused on the weight of the situation and perform as you would like to. Follow these steps to be more successful in whatever it is you want to accomplish with your presentation, meeting, or performance…

1. Talk about it in advance.

In fact, writing this article is helping me do just that! If we let our critical inner voice dominate the conversation before these events, they will dominate during these events.

Here is the other voice in my head: “Of course I want to do well AND I want Jay to have as much fun as possible. I will allow myself to fully enjoy the time on stage with Jay so that we both have fun. I will remember that I am prepared and experienced and leave my judgmental thoughts behind. I will connect with Jay and he will have my back as i just focus on having his back out there. It is new a new audience and new theater for him too. I have had fun before and will have fun again!”

Whew! If only we could all trust THAT voice in our head more often, right?! Instead, we feel like a balloon that is getting bigger and bigger and by the time the BIG IMPORTANT MOMENT arrives we will probably just pop into a million tiny pieces. Let some of that air out by talking with others about the pressure.

Before a meeting or presentation, voice how you are feeling with the people that you are meeting with or presenting to. About to have a “BIG SERIOUS DISCUSSION”? Start with voicing how you want the discussion to go well. Let them know you’re heart is racing a little. Allow yourself to be authentic and a little vulnerable. You will create immediate connections with the other person(s) and build trust. You will both relax a little more. That is the first step towards letting a little air out of the big balloon of pressure.

Ever watch someone give a presentation and get that nervous feeling for them? Yes! They are nervous for you because they want you to be successful. They want to enjoy the presentation or find value in the meeting time just as much as you. Connect with them on this point.

2. Give yourself a break!

YOU are the important thing — more so than the situation.

While talking with yourself about the upcoming event, stop letting that critical voice put words like important, big, critical, serious, and perfect in CAPITAL LETTERS all the time (did you notice that in the paragraphs above?). That critical inner voice keeps shouting those particular words at you and that is all you will remember when it is time to perform. Yes, these moments quite often are important to us but that doesn’t mean that we have to be more serious than we normally are. And, sometimes, they just aren’t even “more important.”  We put that pressure on ourselves and it carries over into our performance.  We become more guarded and cautious and we often freeze up.

This is incredibly important when I perform shows. If I keep telling myself that this show tonight is “more important than every other show!”, I will go out on that stage all serious and guarded in all the worst ways for myself, Jay, and the audience. I will be less playful and everyone will enjoy it less.  What is important is being myself.

YOU are the one giving the presentation because YOU are the person that is the best person to give it. YOU are meeting with clients or partners because YOU have the knowledge and experience to meet with them. It is about YOU being YOU in these moments. This is not the time to become someone else — someone more guarded and “serious”. Doing so just adds more pressure to the balloon for you and the audience or participants.  Let the only thing in your head that is in capital letters be YOU.  YOU are everything you need.

3. Take the applause.

You did it!  Now… please, oh please, oh please…. take the applause!

When I finish my show the most important thing i can do is thank the audience and my scene partners. The best way i can do this is to take graciously take any applause or compliments. This means i step forward, bow, smile, say “thank you”, make eye contact, and enjoy this moment. I never give the “no, i’m not worthy” face, slink away to the wings, or apologize. Back stage or in the lobby with the audience I never talk negatively about the show or deflect their nice comments. One little action like that and i negate everything that came before that. Do you want them to remember how fun the show was or how bad you felt about the performance? Those are my two choices. It is up to me.

At the end of a presentation or meeting, take the applause. Smile, say thank you, make eye contact, and if you feel like apologizing or demeaning anything you did — DON’T! Do you want them to remember the part of the presentation where you got them to realize you could save their company $50,000 a year, or, do you want them to remember that you could have done a better job at presenting? One little apology or deflection and you’ve just wiped away a lot of your success.

This goes for the beginning of presentations, too! I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen highly accomplished professionals take the podium after their introduction and say, “You are too kind, I’m not worthy of such an introduction.” YOU are. This is not the time to show how humble we can be (are you paying attention ladies?!). This is your time to shine and connect with the audience as YOU.

4. Do it again.

Take every opportunity to do these things that put pressure on you more often. Guess who scheduled this 45-minute duo show with Jay? I did. I could have scheduled anyone in that spot. I had an opportunity to play with someone I admire and I chose to do it.

My plan is to embrace the energy and let myself enjoy the show with Jay and applaud myself for doing so. Nothing more.  That is what I am focused on now.

My best advice to you is to not drag that powerpoint into the trash bin or schedule less meetings. As I told one of my Vistage colleagues that presented last week to our group… go back to the office and give that same presentation to another group. Do it again. You had a talk with your boss last week about some issues you were having? Schedule another one for next week just to check in and keep the channels of communications going. You just started increasing communications and trust between the two of you. Keep it going.  Every opportunity you can find to do the thing that feels to difficult? Do it again.

Yes, I’m asking you to put air in the balloon more often. What happens when you put air in a balloon more often? It becomes more resilient and harder to break!

And, if Tina Fey wants to come to town and perform with me, I’ll be ready for her! Anyone have her contact info?

Your next opportunity to learn more about thriving under pressure is in one of our Introduction to Improvisation classes or our April Speechless (presenting on the fly!) workshops.

By Amy Lisewski

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