by Steve Adubato, PhD

As professionals, we often have to present and communicate in pressure filled situations. This subject comes to mind during the election season, as we watch candidates debate on television, attempting to persuade their audience.

Time is limited. It’s critical to make a positive first and lasting impression. You can’t lose your cool no matter what is asked of you or said about you. Your message must be clear, but you also must be engaging and conversational.

It could be a presentation before an important group of high level executives making a decision on whether you get promoted or not. It could be a critical sales meeting in which the prospective client tells you “you only have 10 minutes, so you better get to it.”

Regardless of the scenario, consider the following communication tips and tools that will help you to present in public when the pressure is on:

Avoid the temptation to cram a ton of information or data into your head, or to communicate it as quickly as possible. This is dangerous because you are likely to get confused or flustered if you think you have forgotten an important fact. Rather, go in with a few important themes or messages and play off these “talking points.” Be confident. It’s not about how much information you communicate, but rather, that what you communicate connects with your audience.

Don’t try to memorize your presentation. It never works. Plus, even if you get the words right, your presentation will be stiff and stilted, rather than conversational and fluid. I say, jot down 3 or 4 of the key themes or messages described above and have them in front of you for reference. It’s not a test on how much you remember, but rather, how well you communicate it to your audience.

Prepare for the Q&A. No matter how effective you think your presentation is, you are likely to face a challenging series of questions afterward. I’ve seen many professionals get flustered and thrown off because they didn’t expect a particular line of questioning. Make sure that when preparing for your big moment, you have a small group of people you trust peppering you with challenging questions, and respond to their questions in 30 seconds or less. This takes practice and repetition. Don’t expect your answers to magically be there when you need them.

Body language matters. It isn’t just what you say in these pressure filled situations, but also what your body says. I’ve seen political candidates roll their eyes or let out a sigh. Former President George Bush even checked his watch in a televised debate. It’s critical that you keep your composure and don’t allow yourself to express uncontrolled anger or frustration at either what you perceive to be an unfair question or an attack from someone challenging you. Great leadership is often about how you present and how you appear to others in these pressure filled situations.

Be gracious in your praise of others, as opposed to making it all about you and your accomplishments. Just this past week in a televised gubernatorial debate, when Senator Barbara Buono was asked to say something nice about Governor Chris Christie, she said, “he’s good on late-night television, but not so good in New Jersey.” Conversely, Governor Christie praised Senator Buono as an excellent mother and public servant. The key is to have the confidence to compliment an adversary while realizing that it doesn’t take anything away from you. In fact, the inability to say something nice in these situations communicates the wrong message…especially when the pressure is on.