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How to consistently win in high stakes situations

Have you ever walked out of a high stakes presentation wishing you could get a ‘do over’?  Have you ever started a critical conversation and ended it without any resolve because the two parties left even more upset than when the conversation began?  Have you ever left a sales pitch only to realize that you left out a key message that could have been the deciding factor for the prospect to commit?

Conversely, have you ever seen a colleague or peer in these same ‘moments of truth’ consistently deliver flawlessly and achieve the desired outcomes – and wanted to know what these people do to ensure they feel confident and win in the boardroom – every time?  It’s really not that complex, nor is it difficult to achieve.

As a corporate trainer, I’ve seen hundreds of people struggle unnecessarily through presentations, pitches, creative recommendations, budget and performance reviews and the most common reason for them not delivering the desired outcome, is lack of preparation.

They knew they could do better, even in some cases they actually knew what and how to do but they just weren’t prepared for that ‘moment’.  The key missing variable is they didn’t make and take the time to rehearse in low stakes environments.

Before I expand on this, let me clarify the simple difference between low-stakes and high-stakes situations.  The only real difference is that in a low-stakes situations, the consequences of your actions will have little, if any consequence.  Conversely, in a high stakes situation, there typically are any combination of key decision makers, clients, peers, advisors in the room as well.  There also could be more theatrics like lights, video, demonstrations and microphones.  There could also have been a big lead up to and lots of discussion about the importance of this moment for the business.  There may be critical decisions that need to be made and your recommendations can be the breaking or making point for a company.  These are external conditions that can understandably increase the tension or ‘stakes’ and affect your performance – but you can control and ultimately eliminate them to ensure you deliver the right impression.

Let’s look at an analogy of a golfer trying to make a simple two foot putt.  They’re on the putting green, on their own, with out anybody watching, nobody scoring, no prize money on the line, etc..  It’s considered a relatively easy putt and chances are they’d be successful at making that putt consistently.  Now take that exact same putt, two feet from the hole and add $100,000 prize if you sink it.  Now add a global television network broadcasting that shot live in front of millions of viewers.  Add tens of thousands of live spectators.  Add your competitor watching from the sideline ready to make the same putt to win if you miss. Oh, and then your caddy reminds you that this putt can make or break your career.  The actions to sink the putt are the same in this simulated high stakes situation.  You need to remain focussed on the same fundamentals you mastered rehearsing while managing the conditions around you to make that putt as consistently as you did in the low stakes situation.

I myself had a similar experience that further reinforced the validity of rehearsing in low stakes.  Instead of going running as I typically do to exercise, I thought I would take advantage of a local outdoor hockey rink that was just built in our neighbourhood and play shinny.  It was a warm winter day, the sun was shining, snow was falling lightly and the rink was empty – only me, the ice, a stick and a puck – so I decided that I was going to take advantage of the opportunity to practice a skill that I was never very good at – the slap shot. With no one else nearby and an open net, no one keeping score, no opponents trying to take the puck from me – this was about as low-stakes as it could get.  As a result, I was very relaxed and even excited that I was finally going to learn how to properly and effectively take a slap shot – something that I was always reluctant and lacked confidence doing.

Learning what do to and how it felt when doing it right.

Knowing that I had the time to really break down the fundamentals, and the consequences of my actions had little impact or significance, I took advantage of the opportunity to focus on this one skill – and focus I did.  Shot after shot, I would calibrate my aim, sharpen my approach, smooth out my swing, reposition the blade of my stick, lift my head, increase the speed, exhale on the swing, get comfortable with the surroundings, balance my body position, etc,.  Once I saw that I was able to take a good quality slap shot, I repeated this process learning how to eventually hit the top right corner just about every time (when I wanted).

This is something I could never do in the past, not because I didn’t have the skill, but I never had (or took) the opportunity to learn.  When you play in games all the time and don’t practice, you rarely get the opportunity to improve your fundamentals.  And in my case, because I Iacked the confidence (although I did have the ability) I never tried taking a slap shot, even when I had the opportunity.

Not only was this personally gratifying to have learned this particular fundamental, but I felt more confident, knew what to do and how to replicate it in high stakes situations (i.e. game situation).  I had the experience of doing it many times over – consistently.  I could visualize what I needed to do, I could break it down so I could replicate it over and over again.  I could do it without hesitation allowing me to take ownership on and capitalize on that key ‘moment of truth’ when it happens.  And it worked!  The next time I was in a game (high stakes) I was able to tap into that previous experience and be confident having performed before and take that slap shot – like I’d never done before.  And I continue to take them frequently ultimately being a more productive contributor to the team.

”That’s great Kenny, you’ve mastered your slap shot, how does that help me in the board room?’  Good question.  So how do you transfer these low-stakes situations to the boardroom? It’s simply about taking those areas that you need or would like to excel (i.e. holding eye contact to appear more confident, handling questions at the end of your presentation to reinforce your credibility, confronting someone for a critical conversation to improve productivity, being more persuasive and getting others to buy into your creative concept, etc..), breaking down the fundamentals and practicing them in low-stakes situations.  Take yourself to the boardroom, and practice over and over again – getting comfortable with the actions and being aware of what and how you’re being when delivering that ‘moment of truth’.   What ends up happening is you transfer that awareness, confidence, ability and knowledge into those high stakes situations and ultimately are more effective.  It manifests as the same performance you deliver when all those other conditions that make up a high stakes situation are present.

Some of the skeptics reading this might justifiably challenge this notion of rehearsing over and over again claiming that if you’re not rehearsing the right thing or the right way, you may not be helping or improving your chance for success.  In other words, repeating the wrong activity over and over again – may end up hurting more than helping.   And there certainly is some merit to that notion which is why it is recommended that you seek out an objective, third party to offer critique.  When rehearsing these key moments gather feedback from a trusted and respected colleague or peer to ensure what you’re rehearsing will have the right impact.  

Now take a look at your calendar and see when that next ‘moment of truth’ is for you and book some time in advance to practice as often as you can so that when you’re in that high stakes situation you’re comfortable, prepared and that confidence and enthusiasm pays off with a ‘yes’ from your audience.

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