How To Shine When You’re On the Spot (Or How To Avoid Choking Under Pressure, Part II)

This week, we’re going to talk about how to be at your best when you’re taken off guard.

That’s what one listener wanted to know during my interview with performance psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama at the Mental Toughness Summit: “What do you do when you’re put on the spot by your boss or board of directors?”

As Noa pointed out, our general tendency is to blurt out an answer without taking a moment to collect our thoughts. Then what happens: we end up rambling without making our point, or backpedaling if we misunderstood the question.

So take a moment (this is where that working memory comes in handy) and ask a clarifying question to understand exactly what the person is asking – what is top of mind for you may not necessarily be what they had in mind.  In some cases, rather than give a partial or incomplete answer, the better, more confident response may actually be to jot down a few notes and say you’ll get back to them later that day with a more complete, informed answer.

In the meantime, practice being prepared for anything.

Eugene Lehner, a long-time violist in the Boston Symphony, tells how one day at rehearsal early in his career, the conductor Serge Koussevitsky called on his friend the great composer, Nadia Boulanger, who happened to be in the audience listening, to take over the rehearsal when he was having difficulty getting the results he wanted.

(That’s a little like Jon Stewart asking Tina Fey to step in for him on the Daily Show.)

In the 43 years since then, Lehner says he hasn’t had a dull moment in rehearsal as he sits wondering what he would say to the orchestra if the conductor suddenly called to him: “Lehner, you come up here and conduct. I want to go to the back of the hall and hear how it sounds.”

You can stay on your toes in the same way. Waiting for the elevator, ask yourself: “What would I say if the CEO came up right now and asked me for a valuation on the Acme deal?” As you’re headed to the bathroom: “What would I say if I ran into a VC and he asked me what my start-up does?”

No more flustered fumbling. Now, the next time you’re under fire for real, you’ll have already mentally rehearsed the scenario dozens of times and be able to produce a confident, surefire response.


  1. Diane Koenigsberg December 28, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    That is definitely one of my challenges. Blurting before thinking…. Another thing to put on my 2012 to do list…


Leave a Reply to Diane Koenigsberg Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.