How to Deal With Performance Stress

Prime yourself for better performance with three simple tricks.

Think back to your last high-stakes encounter. A major investor pitch. A nail-biting client presentation. Maybe even your all-hands meeting. When forced to confront these moments, we face a jarring mix of dread, uncertainty and self-doubt. We start to wonder: Am I up to this? What if I say the wrong thing? And while research shows that pre-performance jitters can be a positive force, most people would rather find ways around the pressure. Here are three tricks to take the edge off your fears:

  1. Talk it out – with yourself: Strange as it sounds, there’s good reason to talk to yourself before your next big performance, especially in the second person. (“You can do this!” is more effective than saying “I can do this!”) Self-talk centers us in the present moment and helps us regain focus on the task at hand. This allows us to talk our way around distraction and screen out the stimuli that weaken our concentration. Self-talk also creates the conditions for better decision-making and helps rescue us from doing things we may later regret. There’s even evidence showing how self-talk enhances leadership and produces better managers. Telling yourself that you’re primed for performance may seem crazy, but it turns out to be crazy helpful.
  2. Name the monster: In Good to Great, Jim Collins pointed out the “scary squiggly things” that hold us back from achieving our personal best. As humans, we’re programmed to run away from perceived threats, but it turns out that a better approach is to head-off the fears by labeling them from the start. Researchers at UCLA found that people with spider phobias showed fewer signs of reactivity when they verbalized their emotions. So before the fear overcomes you, take a deep breath, acknowledge the threat (“I’m scared I might stumble on stage”) and remind yourself of the things you’ve done to contain it (lots of rehearsal, solid content, good night’s sleep). “Naming the monster” won’t make the fear disappear, but it helps us gain a much-needed psychological advantage over it.
  3. (Phantom) Practice Makes Perfect: Brain scans show that people use the same parts of their brains whether they are actually moving or simply thinking about the movement. Researchers call this “phantom practice,” but the effects are quite real: Simply going through the motions has been shown to have the same effect as physical practice — and can even produce a boost in performance. Before your big moment, run through a mental sequence of what you’re about to say or do. Replaying your performance steps will make you feel like you’ve already mastered the act by the time you have to do it “again” for real.

We can’t always avoid the spotlight, but we can definitely take the glare off our fears by reminding ourselves that we’re ready for whatever might come next.


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