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First Aid for Choking

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The bilingual candidate with an MBA from a top American university prepared for his final meeting with one of the world’s most prestigious consulting firms. This was the last of seven interviews, as well as a video conference with the global headquarters, that the candidate had part taken in. With his glowing resume, good looks, and athletic build, he looked like he had come straight from the cover of Fortune magazine. After several weeks of meetings, at the final meeting, he gave a 20-minute presentation on how to use advanced strategic marketing techniques to launch a cardiovascular product in Japan.

The candidate gave his presentation — then he froze, stumbled, shook, and was unable to speak about his 20 perfect PowerPoint slides that he had prepared. He was unable to articulate his thoughts, not at all logical, and was unable to answer questions coherently. Our client finally put him out of his misery and thanked him for his interest in the firm, but thought he was not a “cultural fit”!

What had happened to our rock star? He choked! He is not alone. Who hasn’t finished a business presentation or interview, and thought, ‘ My mind went blank — what happened?’ We have all choked.

When I spoke to the candidate, he was unable to explain what had happened; he mentioned that he had been working long hours and put it all down to nerves. University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock explains in her book Choke (2010) that these situations are the preventable results of information logjams in the brain. “Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” said Beilock, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

The brain can work to sabotage performance in ways other than paralysis by analysis. For instance, pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power, known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities.

Studies have shown that meditation can help the anxiety wheels in our brain slow down and reduce the likelihood of choking.

Perhaps the age-old advice of imagining the audience naked (perhaps more frightening then relaxing at a meeting of Pharma Delegates) is sound. In his book, Bounce (2010) Matthew Syed gives examples of Olympic athletes focusing on the more important things in their lives before the big race. Focusing on family, health, or being grateful also puts life into perspective and the chances of choking are reduced.

Stress can undermine performance in the world of business, where competition for sales, giving high-stakes presentations, or even meeting your boss in the elevator are occasions when choking can squander opportunities.

In summary, prepare to the best of your ability — then forget it. The sun will rise the next morning.

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