Opportunity doesn’t always give you ample warning … or sometimes, any warning. That doesn’t mean you should let it pass you by. Instead, follow these simple but powerful tips for performing well even when you don’t have time to prepare.

1. Stop and Look Around

Take a few deep breaths to calm your heart rate and your brain. When things come at us suddenly, even positive things, our brains might interpret them as threats. You need to take a moment to breathe, take in your environment, and interpret for your brain what the opportunity is.

For example, if you’ve just found out that your boss expects a report from you during the meeting that starts in five minutes, duck into the bathroom for a moment, lock yourself in the stall, and get centered. Tell your brain that it’s an opportunity, not a threat.

2. Picture the Positive

Fight off panic at being put on the spot by picturing things playing out in the most positive way possible. This helps you to look for positive responses instead of negative ones. We tend to focus on the negative, and when we see it, it can throw us in a tailspin that simply produces more negative reactions. Instead, cue your brain to find the positive in what is happening.

Before you leave the bathroom and head out into that meeting, picture the meeting room itself. Picture your boss smiling. Picture yourself, confident, smiling, and calm, giving a report. Then go and match that picture in your head.

3. Assess and Triage

When you have little or no preparation time, you simply cannot do it all, no matter how much you would like to. If a client throws an urgent, last-minute project your way, you know immediately that you cannot cover all the details as you normally would. So you assess and triage.

Assess by looking over the project and determining what the needs and potential solutions are.

Then triage by quickly assigning each need, and corresponding solution, a priority level from one to five, with one being the highest priority and five being the lowest. Then start on the first-level priority needs. Once you finish those, hit the second-level priority needs, then the third-level, and so on. Keep going until your time is up, and though you may not have finished everything, you will know you have finished what is most important.

4. Fall Back on Your Strengths

When Joe found out he was sitting next to two of the high-level executives at dinner during the annual sales conference, he panicked a little. He would have liked to have time to mentally prepare, maybe do a little research on their roles, think through some intelligent questions.

Instead he found himself in conversation with no prep time, so he fell back on what he knew he could do: ask questions and find common ground. The conversation went better than he could have planned because he didn’t focus on what he was missing but on what he had.

Your natural strengths are always there for you, even without the preparation you would like to have. We use advance warning to shore up on our weaknesses; so when you don’t have the warning, depend on your strengths.

5. Ask for Help

Asking for help is a good idea any time, but especially when you’re facing a tighter-than-usual time frame. When you find yourself suddenly planning your sister’s wedding, or the company picnic, or manning the booth at the tech conference, use those networking skills to your advantage.

Call in help: friends, family members, coworkers. You’ll get the best response by asking them to take on specific roles or duties. People tend to shy away from open-ended requests for help, either because they don’t know quite how to respond or because they’re afraid it will become an all-consuming commitment. So be specific: Will you find a local florist? Will you get the cost on catering for X number of people? Will you man the booth for an hour so I can go get lunch and read through these notes?

6. Don’t Over-Explain

It’s easy, when you feel nervous about a situation, to try to explain what is going on, why you aren’t as prepared as you would like to be, so on. But over-explaining and endlessly apologizing will only make you look worse.

If you must, issue a brief apology or explanation: “I’m sorry I don’t have the hand-outs I normally would,” or “Since I don’t have my portfolio with me, here’s my website address where you can view it anytime.”

7. Proceed with Confidence

Have you ever been in the audience when a visibly nervous performer took the stage? It makes you nervous, doesn’t it? You just start holding your breath, waiting for the performer to mess up.

Your nervousness creates nervousness and discomfort in others. That makes it difficult for them to be mentally cheering you on, since instead they’re mentally cringing at the display of nerves.

The answer is to act confident even if you feel nervous. Take a deep breath, swallow that lump in your throat, and stride forward with your head up. If your hands are shaking, put them in your pockets, or link them behind your back. Smile, big and wide, and look people straight in the eye. Act like you would if you were completely prepared. The confidence you portray will make people feel at ease with you, which will help make you to feel more comfortable and do a better job.

8. Find Connection Points

So you sent a pitch to the big-shot editor at the big-shot magazine weeks ago and you heard nothing back. In your mind, it’s not happening, until you answer an unknown caller and find yourself talking to the editor. The big-shot editor. Of the big-shot magazine. About your pitch, which she likes.

Don’t freak out. Breathe deep, listen, and remember that as intimidating as her position, background, or role might be, she’s a human. Like you. Find the things you have in common. Find connection points. Ask and answer questions. Remember that you’re conversing with another human who has intimidations and goals and awkward moments just like you do. Focus on the common ground instead of the perceived divide, and you’ll find more connection points that you might have imagined.

Featured photo credit: Mister Wilson via flickr.com

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