10 Tips for Performing Well Under Pressure


Facing an important presentation, a job interview or a design project on a tight deadline? With these ten tips, Robin Landa explains how to perform under pressure without choking.

“Every Olympic event should include one average person competing for reference,” commented one Twitter user during the recently-concluded Olympics Games in Rio.

In my weekly dance classes there are plenty of us—amateurs being taught by professional dancers who are performing in Broadway musicals or with national dance companies. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see the vast difference between the pros and the amateurs. And it’s counterintuitive to suppose these superior performers might not function at their personal best under high stress situations. So when Ms. Tyler Brown taught a challenging choreographic combination and noticed our trepidation, she related a story about her own early career.


Photo of Tyler Brown | Photo credit: Whitney Browne

As a professional dancer working in New York City, every time Ms. Brown steps into a dance studio or auditions, she has to pick up complex choreography quickly. Within minutes, she has to perform what she just has learned in front of directors and choreographers. When she started with Ailey II, a modern dance company, the spotlight was on her performance of unusually demanding choreography. Ms. Brown reacted with anxiety—she thought to herself, I can’t do this. However, she soon realized her emotional response was interfering with her ability to dance beautifully. Ms. Brown recognized that her directors wanted her to succeed. After all, they selected her for this dance company because she is outstanding. Trusting in her training and talent, Ms. Brown abandoned a negative mindset and set her mind to “win.”

When the stakes are high, even Olympians, professional dancers, or experienced politicians might choke under pressure. From presenting a client pitch to generating a concept for a taxing project to meeting a deadline, designers crack under pressure, too.

Here are ten strategies to avoid choking when it matters most, think positively and get it right when you have to.

Design When It Matters: How to Perform Under Pressure

1. Breathe.

Some psychologists and physicians advocate mindful breathing to calm down. Taking a moment to concentrate on your breathing is a technique used by opera singers, athletes and actors. Breathe in for 7 seconds. Hold for 3. Breathe out for 5. Repeat.

When I had to deliver a conference presentation to a large audience at HOW Design Live, I asked friends for tips. From the Metropolitan Opera singer to the Broadway dance captain to the creative director, the response was the same: “Did you practice?” Client pitch or branding presentation? Rehearse in front of a mirror. Video your rehearsal. Rehearsed? Do it one more time. If you’ve practiced enough, you can rely on your training and muscle memory. For the Olympians among us, practice is a given. Super-human athletes might choke for other reasons, but not for lack of practice. Dr. Sian Beilock, an expert on performance and brain science and a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, studied what happens during mental and physical performance when we crack under pressure with her research published in Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. One fascinating finding is the highest performing people are most susceptible to choking under stress.

2. Practice under pressure.

When you practice, imagine you’re presenting at a TED Talk to hundreds (maybe thousands) of people. Or pretend that you’re going to let your studio down if you don’t win the account (sorry). Studies show that practicing under stressful conditions rather than under low-pressure conditions lessens the chance of choking. Dr. Beilock’s studies have shown this.

3. Be a scout—be prepared.

Organize what you need to remember. Years ago, before my first presentation in front of a huge audience at HOW Design Live, a colleague experienced in national presentations advised me. He said not to read (which is deadly) but to memorize one pithy introductory line for each part of my presentation. I used each intro line as a trigger for what I needed to cover.

4. Imagine opposition.

To be prepared for questions, I think of an a fortiori argument, the strongest argument against my conclusions an attendee or client could make and then devise a response. Of course, it’s hard to conceive questions that could come out of left field, though imagining tough ones will help you prepare.


photo by GoaShape

5. Draw or write about your feelings for a few minutes.

Before you begin what you need to do, loosely use the Surrealist technique of free writing or drawing. Sketch or write about your feelings without deliberation or thought to structure. Getting your emotions out can be cathartic.

6. Shift the focus.

Don’t focus on the thing that’s stressing you out. If you’re coming up empty during the idea generation phase of the design process, rather than focusing on generating a design concept, focus on the brand or company’s values, personality and mission. Or focus on the aesthetics of the letterforms in the logo you’re designing. Shift the focus from what you need to produce to your research or process. If you’re still choking, hum a song to yourself (or doodle) for a bit. Use music to distract yourself from the pressure of the task. When I give a workshop to professional designers, at the outset I focus on the people I’m meeting and shaking their hands rather than on my performance.

Zenartarcherycover7. Become one with the experience.

Relying on intuition and practice, yield to the experience with abandon. For this rather transcendental strategy and further investigation, I direct you to Zen and the Art of Archery (a short book by philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel published in 1948). Prof. Herrigel travelled to Japan to take up the practice of archery with his sights on an understanding of Zen.

8. Use a mantra.

Find a phrase that you repeat to yourself as needed as a reminder to think positively. If you start to spiral into negative thinking, repeat your mantra to yourself. You’re free to use mine: “Be proactive.” I use mantras for all kinds of behaviors that I want to stop, whether it’s to keep me from eating too many cookies (a Weight Watchers enthusiast once offered, “A minute on the lips, forever on the hips”) or ruminating (for this, I simply repeat “Stop”).

9. Recall a prior success.

Be your own coach. If you’ve experienced success in the past, whether it was designing a logo your client adored or meeting a tight deadline, use that to remind yourself that you’re plenty capable. A past success demonstrates your ability and may work better than a blanket statement such as telling yourself, “You can do it.”

10. Trust your training and talent.

Delight in the design process. You got where you are because of your abilities, sensibilities and love of design. To avoid negativity, take Ms. Tyler Brown’s advice, “Difficulty often means you’re being challenged, not defeated.”

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