How Choking Under Pressure Can Be a Good Thing

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: June 16, 2017

Have you ever been a part of something memorable, but for all the wrong reasons? That’s kind of how my pitch on Shark Tank went down.

                Related: How Tower Paddle Boards Survived the Shark Tank

The wheels came off when my slideshow stopped mid-presentation. Stressed, frozen and unable to recover, I stumbled through the rest of my pitch, all while being teased by the Sharks.

I can tell you this, though: Although it wasn’t my most positive entrepreneurial experience, it was ultimately a success. Most people only remember my disastrous pitch, but many forget that I did pull out a deal with Mark Cuban from that fire.

I realize my situation isn’t necessarily typical. In most scenarios, a failed pitch would be the end of the road, not the beginning of a new path. But there’s a lot to be learned from choking during a professional situation.

Why People Choke

Giving a successful pitch comes down to preparation and confidence. Not only does this help you improvise when your presentation starts to go off the rails, but it also shows your investors the depth of your commitment.

Choking during high-pressure situations is usually chalked up to nerves, but University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock thinks there’s more to these moments of stress. To her, working memory plays a major part in on-the-spot performance, and intelligent people often have an abundance of it. But when worry creeps in, it eats away at your working memory and makes it easier to forget the things you normally recall with ease.

There are also serious consequences of choking beyond embarrassing yourself on national TV. When you perform poorly at something, your mind begins to convince you that you’re not actually good at that thing. So you quit trying and tell yourself that you’re just not cut out for it when, in fact, you might be one of the best in the world. You simply choked under the pressure. A public hiccup can paralyze even the most confident people. But it can also be the breakthrough you need to keep moving.

Catch Your Breath

You learn a lot when you make a fool of yourself on TV, and the lessons that come with choking in a stressful situation can ultimately lead to even greater success.

Here are a few things to consider when preparing for your next big pitch to avoid a disastrous situation.

1. Don’t be a parrot.

Many people think memorization is foolproof when, in fact, the exact opposite is true. If you commit your presentation to memory but stumble somewhere, you might lose track of where you were.

A canned presentation can also come across as insincere and inauthentic, which is a vibe that doesn’t sell well. So instead of nailing every word down and hoping not to trip, plan a start and a stop, and just plot the points you want to hit in between.

This method requires you to know your business inside and out. That, in turn, makes you prepared to answer questions or improvise when needed.

Related: Do These 12 Things Before Your Next Speech or Presentation

2. Relax the room.

Investors don’t just invest in businesses; they invest in people. Much like starting a romantic relationship, the two of you must like each other in order to be successful. That doesn’t mean you should lie or be insincere in order to trick someone into liking you under false pretenses, but flattering your target is never a bad idea.

It’s important to be yourself when pitching. If you’re not the type to dress in a suit and tie or use fancy industry jargon, don’t. Your presentation will come across as far more authentic when you feel like yourself.

Belfor CEO Sheldon Yellen learned this firsthand after an employee of his said the suit and tie he usually wears made him unapproachable and intimidating. From that point on, Yellen started wearing casual outfits so his employees felt more at ease talking to him. The more comfortable and relaxed each side is, the more likely you are to succeed.

3. Sit in their chair.

When it’s your company, it’s easy to see why yours is the solution that will change the world. But it’s important to realize that not everyone sees it that way. By looking at your pitch through the eyes of the investor, you’ll be able to spot potential problems and address them before they arise.

When you see your pitch from a different perspective, it’s an act of compassion and empathy for others. Yes, you might be doing it because you want investors to buy into your company, but you’re also making their lives easier by considering how to appeal to them.

The ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is the key to success because no one can be successful entirely by him or herself. When you prove that you’re able to see things from someone else’s point of view, it’s far easier to find people who are willing to work with you.

Choking is one of those things that we all experience and consider the end of the world. Not only is it not, but it can even make you a better communicator in the long run. It’s much easier to make a fool out of yourself when you know it will only lead to greater success down the road.

Related: Top of Mind: 6 Ways to Stay Productive Under Pressure

Stephan Aarstol is the author of the widely acclaimed book The Five Hour Workday: Live Differently, Unlock Productivity, and Find Happiness, garnering coverage from CNN, CNBC, Fox & Friends, The Huffington Post, and Forbes. His unique spin on the average workday earned him “World’s Best Boss” distinctions from multiple German newspapers and the title of “America’s Best Boss” by U.K.-based newspaper The Daily Mail. Stephan Aarstol is the CEO and founder of Tower Paddle Boards, deemed one of Mark Cuban’s best Shark Tank investments.