A group job interview.
A high-stakes board meeting.
A pitch to investors.
If you’ve been in any of these situations, you know how hard it can be to speak confidently, articulately, and convincingly. Even if you think you know your message really well, speaking becomes a lot more challenging when the stakes are high. But while you can’t exactly control the outcome, you can control how you communicate in the moment. Here’s how to speak well in even the most intimidating environments.
First things first, you need to stay centered. If you’re too concerned with trying to read the room and adjust your message accordingly, you may lose your focus completely. You may think you know what your audience wants to hear, but you aren’t a mind reader. Obviously, what they want to hear is important, but can’t let yourself get too obsessed with pleasing everyone in the group.
First of all, you don’t know them. You might know their backgrounds or have heard bits and pieces of information from colleagues, but you typically don’t really know the people you’re speaking to in high-pressure situations. Plus, in small-group environments where it’s you up against three or four VIPs, each one of them may want something completely different.
And don’t count on a lot of facial feedback from your audience. Experienced investors and job interviewers are trained not to be expressive; they’ll be polite and professional but won’t necessarily divulge their impressions. But it’s important to remember that those deadpan looks have nothing to do with you.
As a rule of thumb, the more high-level your audience is, the less reactive they’ll be (at least in terms of their expressions). So try not to worry to much about what they’re thinking. Say what you came there to say, and make it heartfelt. That’s the only part you can control.
In nerve-wracking situations, you need to stand out for the right reasons, but it can feel risky trying to differentiate yourself. There are a few straightforward ways to do that, and it doesn’t mean going out on a limb. You can use compelling imagery, colorful examples, or a heartfelt story in the process of delivering your message.
I asked my team in a recent meeting to go around and share a time they overcame an obstacle—a common job interview question. The most memorable story was recounted by an employee who was living paycheck to paycheck before coming to work with us. He was faced with either moving back in with his parents in California or going for his dream of braving the cold winters of the northern Midwest–which felt like an adventure for a West Coast native.
Moving back home was the safer choice, but he took the risk and came up here to Minnesota. The decision paid off, he said, not just for his career but for my company, which is lucky to have him. A personal story doesn’t need to be totally jaw-dropping to be colorful and memorable. It just needs to shed light on the values, ideas, and the experiences that have had the most impact on you. Do that, and you’ll differentiate yourself even in a high-stakes scenario.
I was recently working with the CEO of a major corporation who’d hired me to help some of his senior leaders speak more effectively to his board. He said that one of the biggest challenges is that the board has what he called “bathtub brains”–they drain after every meeting, so you can’t assume they’ll remember what happened previously.
That’s a challenge for speakers who want to leave their VIP audiences with something they’ll actually hold in mind for the next time you meet. To do that, a little context goes a long way when you reconvene. For example, if you’re presenting to a team of investors for the second time, spend a minute or two going over the highlights of your first presentation.
By providing the appropriate context for the new set of remarks you’re about to deliver, you’ll be able to plug those leaky bathtubs. Same goes for keeping things moving in your favor throughout a long, drawn-out job interview process.
Finally, when you’re speaking in high-pressure environments, you need to manage your inevitable anxiety. Some people find this easier than others. In order to manage your nerves, you can actually channel your tension into your speaking cadence. Start strong by using rhythm–for instance, in an opening structured around a series of questions:
What are the challenges we’ve overcome in the past? What are the challenges we need to overcome right now? What are the challenges we may need to overcome in the future?
You can also repeat phrases, like “Think about x. Think about y. Think about z.” If you can get into a rhythm from the get-go, you’ll give an outlet to that anxiety and find your confidence zone. Rhythm is just one speaking technique to help you manage nervousness, though; here are a few more.
Even the strongest speakers can struggle when the stakes are sky-high. But if you keep these strategies in mind, you’ll be able to rise to the top by speaking with power and purpose–even if you’re feeling jittery at the start.