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Perform Your Best ‘Worst Case Scenario’ (Part I)

  • May 12, 2013
  • Mark Schulman


One of my worst anxieties comes from the fact that anything could derail or distract me at any time. Since unexpected events are among the most potent means of stimulating physiological stress reactions, many performers adopt rigid preparation schedules, ordering their lives on the day of a show so that nothing is left to chance.

I think of it differently. I imagine my worst-case scenario. It releases my anxiety and allows me to laugh at myself. Build it up in your mind as something that would be insurmountable. Once you define what that is, you remove the mystery and you gain clarity about what you would do if it happened. Then, you can anticipate that possibility during rehearsals, creating specific capability for the “what ifs.” Perform your worst-case scenario until you’re comfortable with it.

Tim Sanders doesn’t just prepare for a speech; he rehearses worst-case scenarios. He prepares for potential missteps, for uncooperative audiences, for really bad performances. And Tim’s been in some high-pressure situations—an officers meeting at a struggling Freddie Mac, a leadership speech to Mexican anti-gang units in their bunker (it took 30 minutes to win them over).

In Today We Are Rich, he also gives some useful action steps. “An important part of preparation is to anticipate objections to the points you’ll make in conversation or presentation. Outline answers to overcome those, and separately rehearse presenting them to your skeptical audience member or conversational partner. The more you face objections during preparation, the more you’ll be convinced that you are right, which will give you conviction when it counts.

“Distractions are the hardest things to prepare for. Ringing cell phones, fire alarms, people suddenly getting up and leaving the room—all of these can fluster you, regardless of how much you’ve rehearsed.” Rehearse dealing with these distractions, Tim says.

“When you are flying on a plane and catching up on your emails, convert the crying baby behind you from an annoyance to an opportunity to perform with distractions. When you are in a meeting or talking and a cell phone rings or someone whips out his or her BlackBerry to check email, treat it as an opportunity for you to learn to ignore it. This will not only prepare you better but also transmute distractions from negative experiences to constructive opportunities.”

It’s how I imagine astronauts prepare for space flight—rehearsing every possible scenario so that there is no room for mistake or miscalculation. To find out, I interviewed spaceman and former fighter pilot Alan Bean (yes, a decorated fighter pilot turned astronaut and a rock ‘n’ roll drummer discussing shared experiences.)

I did my homework. I knew he’d be critical of my concepts and ask questions about my background. He’s conservative, analytical and about as un-rock ‘n’ roll as they come, and what he told me about traveling through space was far less dramatic than I anticipated. Why? Because of preparation.

The Navy knows it’s scary up there, so its airmen start by flying simple aircraft and performing simple maneuvers. Once they’ve mastered those, they move on to more complex planes that do more dangerous exercises. The pilots learn to overcome small fears. Alan recalls one particularly harrowing training day.

“We walked out to the airplane, and the pilot said, ‘This airplane has had a series of false fire warning lights, so it’s possible we’ll see that today. They’ve tried to fix it, but they haven’t seemed to have found the problem.’

“We take off, and we’re flying; everything is great. And all of a sudden that fire warning light comes on. I knew that a fire warning light was one of the worst things you could have in an airplane—that you might have to eject. I had a difficult time concentrating on flying that airplane, even though I knew it was probably false.”

Alan recognized the value in an exercise that forced him to concentrate in spite of his anxiety. Later on in his career, he experienced things a lot more scary than fire warning lights, but they weren’t nearly as traumatic, because he’d learned through vigorous practice and preparation how to stay focused on his capability when things weren’t perfect.

It was the same way with NASA. Astronauts go through all sorts of game-time scenarios, so that when they’re on an actual space mission, and doing all sorts of really amazing, dangerous things, they’ve already experienced what it’s like—which is why it wasn’t overwhelming for Alan to actually travel to the moon. But he does humbly admit that nothing could really have prepared him for the unearthly experience of stepping out of the ship and space walking. “I opened the door, and there was nothing—just space.”

That wasn’t fear though; it was awe.

Sometimes the worst-case scenario happens and it creates magical opportunities. There’s a natural sense of empathy from your audience when adversity appears, especially when it deals with things that you did not anticipate and that your audience identifies as truly out of your control.

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