8 Tips When Speaking in the Line of Fire


"There's only one reason I registered for your class," stated a young man who worked for a top accounting firm. He was in my public speaking class at New York University. He went on to explain that every time a partner would shoot a question at him in meetings, he would freeze. This happened even when he knew the answers. With a little probing it became evident that he believed he had to respond rapidly.

Has this ever happened to you? You feel you're under the gun. It may be a high stakes meeting a job interview, or media appearance. It could be a panel presentation where you freeze in response to a moderator's question. There are times when presenters feel like they're speaking in the line of fire. Scientists at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute published research that indicated that when someone perceives group members as having higher status, it can affect problem solving abilities with a decline in "expression of IQ". What happens in the brain is the amygdala (primitive brain) takes over the pre-frontal cortex (thinking brain). But high pressure situations don't have to derail your presentation. 

Here are 8 tips to stay cool under pressure:

1. Prepare. If you're going into a pressure situation, know the players and anticipate their questions. Don't wing it. Plan your answers and if you're really nervous, practice your answers out loud.

2. Gather allies. Talk to a few people in the meeting and learn how they feel about an issue. Float your ideas with key players before the meeting to gain buy in or support.

3. Ground your energy. Right before the meeting, do a 1 to 5 minute meditation by using your smart phone. Take a Break and Headspace are two popular apps. You'll feel less nervous if you assume a grounding position. Lean forward at a 15 degree angle and rest your hands on the table.

4. Pause and think. You're not required to give a rapid fire response and you're not speaking against the clock. Take a breath and think before you speak You need time to construct your answer.

5. Ask a question. Clarify your understanding of the question. "Are you asking about the efficacy of the product or the time to market?" Clarifying will buy you time and will ensure clear communication.

6. Answer concisely. A response that is short and to the point will prevent you from being taken off track. Provide further details if asked but don't get stuck in minutia. (See tip #1)

7. Don't repeat negative language. In the case of a hostile query, rephrase the question to sound neutral. Question:  "Are you gonna screw up like the last project?"  Answer:  "You're concerned about the quality of the output. I can assure you we've learned from our past mistakes and this is what we're doing to ensure success." This allows you to take control.

8. Get a coach. If you find that you continue to freeze up continually there may be a memory or past experience that triggers the anxiety. A coach can identify limiting beliefs and provide confidence building techniques.

The young man in the public speaking class learned to use tip #3. As a result, he was able to hold his own in meetings and no longer froze when asked a question. Most public speakers don't like presenting under pressure. But pressure is inevitable. When you practice these tips you'll be able to speak in the line of fire. What is the tip that most resonates with you?