Hints to keep from choking while making a presentation

CHICAGO — Everyone has been there at one time or another: blowing a job interview, flubbing a pitch to a client, flunking a test. • During stressful situations, even people who are capable of performing better and have done so in the past have dropped the ball.

James Sprayregen, a Kirkland & Ellis bankruptcy lawyer who handled the United Airlines reorganization, recalls how he froze during a key presentation before directors of a Fortune 100 company.

Sprayregen said he started his talk by saying there were three major reasons the company he was representing should avoid a certain course of action. Spelling out the first reason was easy. Then his mind went blank.

"I stood there for about 30 seconds, with everyone staring at me, trying to remember two and three," Sprayregen said. Finally the two other reasons popped into his head.

"Ever since then, I never say there are 'three major reasons,' but rather there are 'several reasons,' " he said.

Sprayregen prefers speaking extemporaneously, even though he knows that's risky. Occasionally, he'll keep a piece of paper with a handful of key points, "sort of like Sarah Palin with the writing on her hand," he said.

Another way to prevent choking is to practice in comedy or acting classes, said Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychologist and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.

"Pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain's processing power known as working memory, which is critical to everyday activities," Beilock said. Such memory serves as a mental scratch pad that temporarily stores information relevant to doing a math problem, responding to a client's questions or carrying out other stressful tasks, she said. When worries creep in, the working memory can become overburdened.

And you know what happens next. Your mind goes blank, you become tongue-tied, your heart begins racing and your face turns red.

Here are some tips on how to avoid such embarrassment:

State your take-home point immediately: That's particularly useful advice in job interviews and business meetings. "If I tell you what I'm trying to get across at the beginning, everything else can be hooked onto that," Beilock said. "Research shows it matters when you give people the take-home point." Also, think about what you want to say, not what you don't want to say. The ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts is compromised during stress, Beilock said.

Meditation: The process can help people let go of negative thoughts and worries that can deplete mental resources that could otherwise be devoted to performing well under stress, Beilock said. Meditation "has been shown to change the function and the wiring of the brain," she said. Even 10 minutes of meditation training can improve performance under stress, she said.

Tell yourself you're good enough and smart enough: Remind yourself of your credentials and the reason you've been asked to give a speech, make a presentation or address a weighty matter during a meeting, Beilock said. Kirkland & Ellis' Sprayregen said when nerves arise, such as before a speech, it's useful to remember that "most of the people in the crowd would be 10, 20, 100 times as nervous making the speech."

Practice making a fool of yourself: Practicing under mild or even low levels of stress can help people prepare for the real thing, Beilock said. But if practicing leads to negative anticipation, that can be counterproductive, she said.

Put worries to paper: Spending as little as 10 minutes writing about your worries, such as, "I'm worried I'll fail this test and not get my license," can make performers less likely to fizzle.

Students who do that before a big test perform 15 percent better than students who sit and stew in their worries, Beilock has found.

What about just spending that time studying more? "We've tested writing vs. studying more," Beilock said. "I can tell you that the writing works."

Pause: While taking a demanding test or trying to solve a difficult problem, pausing can help prevent going down the wrong path or getting distracted by irrelevant details. Even walking away for a few minutes can lead to an "a-ha" moment, Beilock said.

Know when to put it on autopilot: Football teams often call a time-out when the opposing team's kicker is about to boot a field goal.

It's because people who know a subject or a procedure well, and who should be able to execute it fluidly and flawlessly, can get tripped up if they overthink a well-practiced speech or sales presentation or dwell on it too much to try to control every word or aspect of their performance, Beilock said.

State your take-home point immediately: That's particularly useful advice in job interviews and business meetings. "If I tell you what I'm trying to get across at the beginning, everything else can be hooked onto that," Beilock said. "Research shows it matters when you give people the take-home point." Also, think about what you want to say, not what you don't want to say. The ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts is compromised during stress, Beilock said.

Meditation: The process can help people let go of negative thoughts and worries that can deplete mental resources that could otherwise be devoted to performing well under stress, Beilock said. Meditation "has been shown to change the function and the wiring of the brain," she said. Even 10 minutes of meditation training can improve performance under stress, she said.

Tell yourself you're good enough and smart enough: Remind yourself of your credentials and the reason you've been asked to give a speech, make a presentation or address a weighty matter during a meeting, Beilock said. Kirkland & Ellis' Sprayregen said when nerves arise, such as before a speech, it's useful to remember that "most of the people in the crowd would be 10, 20, 100 times as nervous making the speech."

Practice making a fool of yourself: Practicing under mild or even low levels of stress can help people prepare for the real thing, Beilock said. But if practicing leads to negative anticipation, that can be counterproductive, she said.

Put worries to paper: Spending as little as 10 minutes writing about your worries, such as, "I'm worried I'll fail this test and not get my license," can make performers less likely to fizzle.

Students who do that before a big test perform 15 percent better than students who sit and stew in their worries, Beilock has found.

What about just spending that time studying more? "We've tested writing versus studying more," Beilock said. "I can tell you that the writing works."

Pause: While taking a demanding test or trying to solve a difficult problem, pausing can help prevent going down the wrong path or getting distracted by irrelevant details. Even walking away for a few minutes can lead to an "aha" moment, Beilock said.

Know when to put it on autopilot: Football teams often call a timeout when the opposing team's kicker is about to boot a field goal.

It's because people who know a subject or a procedure well, and who should be able to execute it fluidly and flawlessly, can get tripped up if they overthink a well-practiced speech or sales presentation or dwell on it too much to try to control every word or aspect of their performance, Beilock said.

Hints to keep from choking while making a presentation 11/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 13, 2010 3:30am]

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