What To Do When You Have An "Oh, Shit" Moment

President John F. Kennedy once said that “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters — one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”

His Mandarin interpretation of those two symbols may have been imperfect, but the sentiment behind the quote is exactly right.

I always remind our clients that a difficult question, whether from a media interviewer or a questioner at a speech, is a gift. Think about it this way: If you answer easy questions well, the audience won’t give you a lot of credit. But if you stand up to tough questioning with dexterity and deliver unexpectedly strong answers? Well, the audience will give you enormous credit for grace under pressure, and may even rethink their previously-held views.

In our mock interviewing sessions, we often ask challenging questions – and we don’t let the spokesperson off the hook easily. As soon as our questions get tougher, we predictably see the spokesperson’s face change into some contortion of “oh, shit” or “help!”

One of our main goals is to help them change their interior monologue, to flip the script from “Oh, shit, what’s he going to ask me next?” to “I’m so glad you asked me that question. Let’s talk about that!” Yes, it’s easier said than done – but no single change has a greater impact on the way the audience perceives your response.

I have some personal experience with this. First, as background, I look young (you know this if you’ve seen my photo on the side of the blog). I’m turning 40 this year, so I’m not as young as I look. But I’m often self-aware of my youthful look when I’m speaking in front of a group of older leaders, wondering if they’re doubting my credibility. That nervousness only lasts a minute or two, at which point I’m confident that my introduction got them on my side. But those first couple of minutes are nervous ones for me.

A few years ago, I was speaking to a large group of senior U.S. Military officials. Within the first couple of minutes, while I still felt my internal butterflies flying, a senior officer raised her hand.

“I don’t think that’s right,” she said, before telling me why she thought I was wrong.

“Oh, shit,” I thought. “There goes my credibility.”

Fortunately, I remembered my own advice within a second, and replaced my internal script with, “I’m glad she’s bringing this up.”

When she finished, I responded by saying, “I’m really glad you asked that, because I know other people here are probably thinking that. Thank you for bringing it out into the open.”

When you’re faced with your own “oh, shit” moment, remember to flip the script, and you’ll be fine.

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