About 8 months ago, I received a call from a dear friend ‘Emma’…it was 10am on a Saturday morning. Emma was distraught. Her son’s wedding was in 4 hours and she was beside herself. “I’m supposed to make a speech at the reception, but I can’t!” she said. My heart broke, and I replied “Aw Emma, why not? You will speak beautifully.”

Close to tears she said, “Alex’s father will be there, with his wife! Alex’s friends and workmates will be there. I don’t speak well in public…I just can’t do it.”

So often in these moments, when friends or colleagues turn to us for support in times of crisis, we feel helpless. We listen, we offer encouragement, but beyond that we feel we have nothing substantial to say. But as hard as it was to listen to my beautiful friend, distraught, helpless & hurting on such a significant day in her life, I felt I had something to offer. I had a coach in my corner, a wonderful friend and colleague, JP Pawliw-Fry who was in the final throws of finishing his new book,Performing Under Pressure – the science of doing your best when it matters most. JP had graciously shared his pre-published work and as a result, I felt I had somewhere to go, something substantial to offer & believed I could help. I was armed with practical, proven tips and suggestions that could help Emma step-up and deliver in this important, pressure-packed moment.

As I listened to Emma that morning, I reflected on JP’s work and realized she was experiencing the perfect storm of a pressure moment:

  1. She felt she would be judged (the reception would be packed with ‘judges’… her ex. Husband; her son’s colleagues; her daughter in law’s family & friends)
  2. The outcome was uncertain (she didn’t just doubt she could pull this off, sheknew she would fail)
  3. The outcome was important to her (she wanted the day to be perfect for her son and was afraid she would spoil it)

The fundamental thing I had come to learn from JP’s research was this – Emma didn’t have to deliver a perfect speech. So often in pressure situations, we feel that to avert catastrophe, we need to morph into someone we’re not – a “super-hero”. In this instant, she might have felt she had to magically transform, and deliver the perfect speech that would be all things to everyone in the room. But the reality was, that wasn’t going to happen. [This is precisely what is so crippling about a pressure moment – the belief that we need to be better than we are, when deep down we know that’s not possible.] Emma knew that she wasn’t going to deliver a perfect speech which is why she felt so hopeless. The good news, is that she didn’t have to! She simply had to be the loving Mother we all knew her to be. The realization that we don’t need to be better than we are, is powerfully liberating – and absolutely critical when performing under pressure.

I asked her, “Emma, who’s the most important person in the room that you will be talking to?” She paused, then thinly whispered…”A-Alex…and I suppose Clare (the bride)”. “Wonderful.” I said, “Speak to them. What do you want to say to Alex and Clare?” Emma hesitated, thought about it, then came back with, “I want to tell them how much I love them, how happy I am that they have found each other and I want to wish them happiness, health and joy.” I smiled and said, “Perfect, that’s what you need say.”

“And Emma, why is it important that you tell them that?” This caught her off guard, and she went quiet, but then after a long pause said, “Because I love Alex more than anything and truly want him to be happy and settled. He deserves it, and he’s worked so long and hard to get to this point and I am so grateful he has found his soul-mate. Deep down, I guess I’ve always feared he wouldn’t, but now that he has found Clare and about to walk down the aisle with her… I can’t stop smiling. He’s so blessed. We’re all so blessed.”

My heart rose, “That is absolutely beautiful, why don’t you share that with Alex and Clare?”

I could hear her take a deep breath, and say “I will.”

“What will help you to remember to say that?”

“I’ll go write it down.”

“Ok, so you’ll have your notes…and when you speak, what can you do that will help you keep focused on Alex & Clare?”

“I’ll just look at Alex…I’ll focus on Alex and Clare.”

“Absolutely. Stand tall, open your heart and speak to them like you are all sitting at your kitchen table.”

“I will. Thank you!”

This real-life pressure packed moment is one I believe many of us can connect with…in life, each of us will have our own ‘wedding speech’ moments. Moments where we find ourselves exposed, alone & where (seemingly) everything is on the line. The question is, what can we do to step into in these pressure packed situations and deliver – when all we see is an inevitable train wreck? Let’s take a look at what Emma did:

Lesson #1: You don’t have to be perfect – the belief we need to be better than we are only amplifies the pressure. For Emma, she simply had to be the loving mother she always has been.

Lesson #2: Shrink the challenge – break down what may appear to be an insurmountable goal to something achievable. For Emma, she just needed to speak to her son and open her heart.

Lesson #3: Focus on the Mission – what’s most important. For Emma, her mission was a life-long journey of a single mother, and as she reflected on this she realized the wedding itself symbolized success. Her son was happy, successful and loved. By bringing her attention to that realization, she distanced herself from the demons of failure that can cripple us in pressure moments.

So, how did Emma do? Well, to be honest, her speech wasn’t perfect. At times, she stumbled & lost her place. She even forgot to say some of the things she had written down. But let me just say, there wasn’t a dry eye at the reception when she finished. More importantly, David and Emma felt a Mother’s love, joy & excitement for their future life together – and in that sense, her speech was the best wedding speech she could possibly have given.

For more tips, tools and strategies visit: https://www.ihhp.com/pressure-book/

PERFORMING UNDER PRESSURE: The Science of Doing Your Best When it Matters Most (Crown Business) Dr. Hendrie Weisinger, a world-renowned psychologist and pioneer in the field of pressure management, and JP Pawliw-Fry an international performance coach and contributing member to the Institute for Health and Human Potential, explain the science behind the debilitating effects of pressure. Interweaving a trove of empirical studies and neurological research with firsthand accounts from athletes and executives and performers themselves, the book offers a fascinating exploration into understanding – and overcoming – pressure in our work and personal lives.