How the Pellucid Book Club works: Each month two books are nominated. A vote is taken on which to read and a few weeks later we get together to discuss it. The objective is to learn more about each other's areas of expertise and then write a post inspired by the book. The books fit into one of four categories: Smarts, Charts, Pitch, or Win. This month Originals: How nonconformists move the world by Adam Grant won the vote.
“You talkin’ to me?”
If you get anxious before client meetings, then yes.
A common scene in movies is the protagonist giving himself a pep talk in the mirror. The hero addresses his reflected image, amps himself up, and then goes to get the girl, score a touchdown, win the fight, make Olympic history, etc. etc. etc.
So you would think that to combat nerves or get a confidence boost before a big pitch meeting, you should do the same. Tell yourself that you’ve “got this”, throw the odd jab or two at your reflection (another common mirror pep talk theme), and leave ready to take on the world. But, as was learned reading Originals, you should actually do the opposite.
Your glass should be half empty
For the best strategy to handle anxiety and uncertainty, psychologist Julie Norem has conducted a number of studies examining two different approaches. One approach is strategic optimism: anticipating the best, staying calm, and setting high expectations—typically the movie mirror pep talk mentioned earlier. The other is defensive pessimism: expecting the worst, imagining everything that could go wrong, and feeling anxious.
In one study, participants that were asked to throw darts were randomly assigned to either imagine a perfect throw, a terrible throw, or to relax and not worry about the outcome. Those assigned to imagine the worst performance possible were about 30% more accurate with their aims than the other two groups. In another study involving a mental math calculation, participants assigned to list out all of the worst possible outcomes of taking the test scored a 25% higher accuracy rate than the other two groups.
Norem found that although defensive pessimists are more anxious and less confident than strategic optimists in analytical, creative, and verbal tasks, they often actually outperform their more confident counterparts. She explains that this is because they deliberately imagine everything that can go wrong, allowing them to plan for disaster, prepare alternative options, and have backup plans and contingencies ready. In doing this, by the time the event actually rolls around, defensive pessimists have run through so many “what ifs” and nightmare scenarios that their anxiety levels peaked way before the event and their confidence levels begin to increase, stemming from exhaustive planning and realistic appraisals. This in turn, leads to a greater number of positive outcomes.
Lean into the spin
Preparedness before a meeting is invaluable—and something you probably already do with dry runs, drills, and double checking data. But what about the actual meeting itself?
For some people, it can take a while to feel comfortable in client pitch meetings, millions of dollars could be on the line, not to mention future relationships between your bank and the client. Whether you say anything or not, the first few that you join can be panic-inducing. So even if you’ve planned as much as possible and are prepared for any hurdle, how can you calm your nerves about the meeting itself?
You don’t. You just label them as something different.
Fear is an intense emotion, trying to turn that into calmness is tough because they sit at opposite ends of the energy spectrum. But you can reframe fear as excitement. Both emotions are equally intense but one is positive and the other is negative.
Humans operate on a stop and go system. “Your stop system slows you down and makes you cautious and vigilant. Your go system revs you up and makes you excited,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet. She explains that trying to quieten fear is like slamming on the breaks of a speeding car. Instead, you need to harness the momentum and turn it into something different.
Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard Business School professor conducted an experiment asking students to sing “Don’t stop believin’” before a crowd of peers where their performance would be graded. Beforehand each student was randomly assigned to say “I am anxious” or “I am excited”. Those who labeled their fear as anxiety were only 53% accurate in their singing, while those who channeled nerves into excitement performed with an 80% accuracy rate.
Reframe fear as excitement. Both emotions are equally intense but one is positive and the other is negative.
So should you stop your pre-meeting mirror pep talks?
Not fully. To handle nerves or anxiety about public speaking or delivering materials, telling yourself “I am excited” before a meeting could help you convert nerves into a positive emotion that would boost performance and disguise jitters. But make sure you add to this running through every possible terrible scenario you can think of—from travel delays, to broken printers, to realizing the client is that guy you got into a fender bender with last week—and you can walk into any meeting full of confidence and prepared for anything.
How do you cope with pre-meeting jitters? Do you consider yourself a defensive pessimist? Share your views in the comments below.
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