How to overcome the jitters and not choke

I recently came across a graduation speech by the valedictorian of a university law school.  He began his remarks by acknowledging that he had difficulty deciding what “wisdom” to impart to his fellow graduates.  He said he had consulted several quotation books and speaker’s guides but had come away uninspired.  He reviewed all the cases of law the class had studied and had found nothing that he felt was appropriate on such an important occasion.

At a loss for any inspiring thoughts, he sat down at his kitchen table eating biscuits.  And right in front of him on the opened roll of refrigerated biscuit dough, he spotted the belief that he knew he and his fellow graduates had in common and that he felt was worthy of the occasion.  The package, he said, had this message, “Keep cool.  But do not freeze.”  And with that he thanked all assembled and returned to his seat, amid rousing applause.

Freezing up – also referred to as choking – in important situations happens to all of us.  We regularly hear about golf superstars who blow a tap-in putt or $16 million-a-year basketball players missing a crucial shot.

Choking also happens many times in business.  How about the seasoned sales rep that botches a million-dollar sale?  Or the customer service rep that makes a problem worse rather than fixing it?

Many times choking is triggered by thinking too much.  Now neuroscience explains why.  We used to assume that if the incentive is increased, the will to perform will automatically increase.  Not so, according to a study that appeared in the journal “Neuron.”

A simple arcade game was used for the test.  At first, performance steadily improved as incentives increased.  The extra money proved motivating.  But this effect only lasted for a little while.  Once the rewards passed a certain threshold, scientists observed a surprising decrease in success.  The extra cash hurt performance, and the subjects began to choke.  Brain activity became inversely related to the magnitude of the reward.  Bigger incentives led to less excitement.

Harvey34The study stated that:  “The subjects were victims of loss aversion.  That’s the well-documented psychological phenomenon that losses make us feel bad more than gains make us feel good.  Instead of being excited by their future riches, the subjects were fretting over their possible failure … they care too much.  They really want to win, and so they get unravelled by the pressure of the moment.  The simple pleasures of the game have vanished … The fear of losing is what remains.”

That attitude is completely counterproductive.  One of my favorite aphorisms is “If you want to triple your success rate, you have to triple your failure rate.”  Fear of failure is paralyzing.  It prevents you from taking the risks necessary to succeed spectacularly.

If you “choke” when you’re in the spotlight or you start shaking, blushing or having shortness of breath when you’re on stage, check out the story by Karen Haywood Queen in “Better Homes and Gardens” about pianist Miriam Elfstron.  She suffered the jitters so bad that she had to wear mittens all day the days of her performances because her hands shook and became cold.  Eventually, her piano instructor taught her how to control her anxiety.  Her recommendations included:

  • Think positively.  Practice making positive statements about what you are doing and avoid using negative words or self-talk.  For instance, say “I am confident,” not “I don’t feel nervous.”
  • Practice performing through the inevitable slips.  It’s a performance.  If you mess up the world won’t come to an end.  Get comfortable recovering from slips and memory lapses.
  • Practice in front of smaller groups first.  Don’t perform for the first time for a crowd of 500.  It’s too much pressure.
  • Reduce muscle tension to reduce mental tension.  It’s all connected, so if your body is relaxed, there’s a good chance your mind will be relaxed as well.
  • Adopt a ritual.  Carry a lucky charm.  Wear your lucky shoes.  Touch your nose before you begin.  Dribble the ball three times before the game starts, like Michael Jordan.  Whatever works for you is OK.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist.  Don’t visualize a perfect performance, because then you will feel like you’ve failed if you make even a small mistake.  Instead, picture a performance where you do well by overcoming small obstacles along the way.


Mackay’s Moral:  Don’t let choking suck the life out of your career.  

Street-smart ideas #3

A couple years ago, I wrote two columns on street smarts which really resonated with readers.  They asked for more!

Drawing on what I’ve learned over many decades in business, I just barely scratched the surface.  These are little nuggets that you probably won’t learn from a book in school, but they are important for success. Here’s Part III of Harvey’s Street Smarts:

First idea – Make gifts memorable.  Use creative gifts to stand out and be remembered.  I also appreciate gifts that continue to remind me of that person.  For example, a clock that chimes.

Next idea – Humanize your selling strategy.  Learn what people’s hobbies are and find ways to leverage them through tickets, clippings or just current conversation.  Learn what turns a person on.

Next idea – You’re not just selling a product.  In every sales transaction, position yourself as your customer’s confidant and advisor.  More than product, you are selling trust first and foremost.

Next idea – At every meeting with managers, always go around the room and ask managers what can go wrong and prioritize it.  If it happens, how are we going to solve it?

Next idea – Hold one-on-one meetings with your employees to learn all about them – what is important to them at work and at home.  Employees are people first!

Next idea – You want to make every customer feel like he or she is the only customer you have.

Next idea – Timing is everything.  You never ask your parents for the keys to the car when they are in a bad mood.


Next idea – You can’t successfully negotiate anything until you know the market.  You won’t recognize a good deal unless you’ve done your homework.

Next idea – You always want to sleep on it.  Take your time in most decisions and things become much clearer.

Next idea – Never say no for the other person.  Ask and let them say no.

Next idea – Short notes yield big results.  It takes only a moment.  As a matter of personal recognition and courtesy, remember names and take a personal interest in people.

Next idea – When you boil it all down, the world of business really rotates on the following principle:  Every person needs someone else to help them open doors.  And that can only be accomplished – no matter what you are selling – by a phone call, email, letter or in person, giving that individual instant credibility to make the contact.

Next idea – Outside my office door is a sign – If you know where you can get us some business, come on in.  On the table is a sign – Our meeting will not be interrupted unless a customer calls.

Next idea – Every person basically knows about 200 people, so if you have 10 friends, you have 2,000 contacts.  If you are lucky enough to have well-connected contacts, you could start out with many thousands more.  Remember that you are seeking quality and not quantity.

Next idea – Friends of comedian Red Buttons thought he had a phenomenal memory with holiday cards.  He filled them out year-round when he met people and mailed them at Christmas time.

Next idea – Never tell a mother her baby is ugly.  When someone is close to a project, be very careful what you say.  It may come back to bite you.

Next idea – Every day of your life, many of us have to get up and do a couple things that you don’t want to do.  So you might as well get on them right away in the morning.

Next idea – You can take any amount of pain, as long as you know it will end.  Some days will be bad, but the sun will still rise the next morning.

Next idea – Introduce yourself to every person you sit next to on an airplane or anywhere else.  The person on your left or right or in front or back of you can be very important in your life.  Do not judge a book by its cover.

Next idea – Knowledge is power – but not until it is used.  Information is only as good as what you can do with it.

Mackay’s Moral:  Stay on your toes or fall flat on your face. 

Life: It’s something to celebrate

In July of last year, I was in Israel being briefed in-depth by the cream of Israel’s intelligence community and the entrepreneurial barons of its imposing high-tech establishment.  The American-Israel expert who arranged my visit and energetically accompanied me was my long-time close friend Gordy Zacks, who was 80 years old at the time.  For decades, Gordy was CEO of the comfort-footwear giant R.G. Barry (Dearfoams, Baggallini) and later a trusted White House advisor to President George H.W. Bush.

Even when we were in Israel together in July, Gordy knew he had long-term prostate cancer.  Being an early-diagnosed cancer survivor myself, I empathized with Gordy.  Unlike my cancer that was nipped in the bud, doctors told Gordy his would advance irreversibly, but the odds were it would take years.  That’s if the cancer behaved. . . .  It didn’t.

In December, Gordy experienced some sharp pain.  He quickly saw his physician.  Tests were done.  The cancer had migrated from his prostate to his liver.  The pain warning was graver than anyone could imagine:  Gordy had terminal cancer.  Verdict:  just four weeks to live!

In addition to being a gifted businessman and a breathtakingly knowledgeable Israel advocate, Gordy was also an accomplished author.  His first book Defining Moments chronicled the fine-points of leadership.  What do you do when you have just four weeks to live?  Gordy decided he would write a second book, thinking his end-of-life experiences might benefit others.

           definingmoments                     redefiningmoment                          

Gordon Zacks’s Redefining Moments (Beaufort) is chock full of penetrating insights and useful suggestions.  Among them:

  • Go for closure:  “True closure is one of the most powerful treasures in life,” Gordy affirms.  “You could be missing closure with someone halfway across the country or someone who’s in the next room.  Whatever the barrier may be, find the way to break through it. . . . ”
  • Emphasize the possible.  Gordy reminds us to “Stay true to your purpose in life and its value.”  The book advises:  “If the opportunity exists, rewrite your ‘bucket list’ to achieve realistic goals given both the time available and the physical ability to do what you would like to do.”
  • Be adaptable.  “One of the most challenging aspects of the end of life is the devastating loss of independence in doing the very simplest things – moving yourself, dressing yourself, caring for yourself,” Gordy observes.  “It may require tapping powerful new reservoirs of humility and acceptance to realign your attitudes . . . .  Your willingness to accept perceived ‘humiliation’ will often be directly related to your opportunities to experience joy.”

What if you asked Gordy a year earlier if he would be willing to use a walker, a wheelchair or even an adult disposable diaper?  “I would have laughed at each of these options,” he admits, “and probably with considerable scorn.  Now I pragmatically accept each measure because these are all tools I need to serve a bigger objective.”

What ranked high among these bigger objectives?  Along with writing Redefining Moments, he attended a series of Celebration of Life events organized for colleagues, friends and family.  His daughter Catherine Zacks Gildenhorn, who also edited Redefining Moments for publication, served as emcee for these events.  In typical Gordy style, he used each of the events to say thank you to the people who helped make his life such a success.

“I knew full well that the approaching end was inevitable, but I was gifted with being lucid, completely aware, and able to initiate. . . .  A Celebration of Life is not about prematurely collecting applause after the show is over.  It’s all about keeping the dynamics of that which is most precious to us alive for survivors and future generations.”

Gordy intended his book as a launching pad to spur dialogue about end-of-life issues and concerns.  Along with the publication of the book, Gordy also saw to the creation of a website –  The website both shares information and allows individuals to post end-of-life experiences and comments which may benefit others.

Gordy passed away in February, exactly as the doctors predicted.  He stressed to the end:  “I’m the luckiest guy that was ever born.”  I felt privileged to attend his funeral where figures of international stature eulogized Gordy’s life, including spellbinding comments by Ohio Governor John Kasich, who celebrated his life as a masterwork of purposeful living.


Mackay’s Moral:  Heed the wise man whose last words remind us to always put first things first.

ABCS of public speaking

It’s been said there are two times in life when you are truly alone:  just before you die and just before you deliver a five-minute speech.  Stage fright can be terrifying, but it needn’t be paralyzing. 

Delivering over a thousand speeches teaches a person a thing or two about getting through to the audience.  Because I am often asked for advice from nervous speakers, I have developed my ABCs of public speaking.

abcs1A is for audience.  Learn all you can about those who will be in attendance so that you can tailor your remarks to hold their interest.

B is for body language.  Move around, gesture and use facial expressions to demonstrate your enthusiasm for your topic.

C is for creativity.  Don’t be afraid to use props, PowerPoint or audience participation to add sparkle and surprise.  Even the most serious topics can benefit from a creative approach to make them memorable.

D is for deliver.  Your presentation needs to have a focused message that leaves the audience with significant take-home value.

E is for eye contact, a critical feature of an effective speaker.  Connecting with your audience can’t happen without it.

F is for feedback.  Ask for immediate, unfiltered responses so you can continue to improve your skills.  And don’t forget to debrief yourself after the event, including what worked well and what didn’t.

G is for grammar.  Pay attention to the language you use.  Make certain it is correct and concise.

H is for homework.  Study the organization you are addressing:  What are the problems, issues, concerns and opportunities.  Mispronouncing names is unforgivable.

I is for introduction.  Make sure that the person introducing you is a real pro.  Provide a prepared introduction with your pertinent information.

J is for jokes.  Try them out on several people to make sure they are appropriate and amusing.  Humor, anecdotes and stories add so much to a speech as long as they are not offensive.  Plays don’t open up on Broadway, they open in New Haven.

K is for knowledge.  Speakers have to demonstrate a real grasp of the subject at hand in order to be taken seriously.

L is for lighting.  People laugh more and retain more in brightly lit rooms.  Dim the lights only if you are using PowerPoint presentations, and only as long as necessary.

M is for masking tape.  Seal noisy door latches to avoid distractions.  Block off the back rows of chairs to keep the audience up front.

N is for noise, which is a real attention killer.  After-dinner speakers especially have to compete with clearing tables and clinking glasses.  Consult with the host organization about minimizing noise interruptions.

O is for opening.  In order to grab the audience’s attention immediately, you need a spectacular opener.

P is for practice, practice, practice.  There is no substitute for preparation.

Q is for Q & A.  Take questions five minutes before you are ready to close, so that you have the last word and control the ending.

R is for room size.  If you have any control over the venue, insist that the room seat only the planned number of audience members.  A room that is too big destroys rapport.

S is for smile.  Let the audience see that you are pleased/happy/honored to be asked to speak.  A smile adds instant warmth.

T is for Toastmasters International, the organization that I recommend for anyone who wants to hone their speaking skills.  It’s tremendous training for speakers at all levels of ability.

U is for unforgettable.  Make your speech memorable with a well-organized message peppered with clever stories and examples, sprinkled with humor, and wrapped up with a great summary.

V is for voice.  Listen to yourself on tape so that you can adjust tempo, tone, timing and inflection.

W is for wisdom.  You want your message to teach and inform.  I’m particularly fond of starting the lessons in my speeches with a “Mackay’s Moral,” words of wisdom that drive home my point.

X is for experience. (Yes, I know it starts with “e”.)  The best way to become a better speaker is to speak as often as you can.

Y is for you.  Take pains to look your best.

Z is for zip it up.  A smashing closing is as important as a gripping opening.

I have another speaking tips handout, “Harvey Mackay’s 35 To Stay Alive,” available at


Mackay’s Moral:  The best way to sound like you know what you’re talking about is to know what you’re talking about.

Get ahead of your dreams to get ahead in business

I am constantly asked the question, “What does it take to get ahead?”  Sure you have to work hard, but there are a lot of other factors.

Investor’s Business Daily identified 10 traits for turning your dreams into reality.  Here they are with my take on each, plus a few bonus thoughts.

A positive attitude.  I have never met a successful pessimist.  It is absolutely essential that you have a positive mental attitude in every aspect of life.  Where your mind goes, you go.  If you think you’ll fail, chances are good that you will.  If you believe you’ll succeed – you’re halfway home.

goals2A definitive goal.  Winners set goals.  Losers make excuses.  A goal is a dream with a deadline that is measurable, identifiable, obtainable, specific and in writing.  Goals give you more than a reason to get up in the morning; they are an incentive to keep you going all day.  Goals tend to tap the deeper resources and draw the best out of life.  Achieving goals produces significant accomplishments.

A courageous spirit.  Courage is what sets you apart from the crowd.  Courage is ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  Courage is regarded as one of the major human virtues.  Courage is bravery, valor, standing up to danger, guts and nerves all rolled into one.  So what does courage have to do with running a business?  Plenty.  I admit that most folks’ daily lives are not filled with such dramatic challenges.  We all face situations that require us to reach down deep within ourselves to do what is right and brave and occasionally difficult.  Courage can involve making decisions that are unpopular or time-consuming or even expensive.

An inquisitive mind.  I’m a big believer in lifelong learning.  You don’t go to school once for a lifetime; you are in school all of your life.  Pursue learning in all its forms – reading books, returning to school, attending seminars and training classes, listening to those who are wiser and more experienced.

A strong heart.  What makes a champion?  Is it attitude, confidence, courage, desire, determination, discipline, endurance, mental toughness, perseverance, physical ability, self-discipline or visualization?  Yes.  It’s probably a little bit of all these characteristics, but it’s also a lot of heart.  In addition, it takes a strong heart to be a successful businessperson.  Use your head, to be sure, but don’t ignore what your heart is telling you.

An analytical brain.  Do your homework; get the facts.  Learn to analyze details.  Often the best ideas stem from little seeds everyone else overlooked.

A focused eye.  How many times have you heard an athlete talk about focus?  It’s a topic I also hear about frequently in business.  The most common complaints?  Too many irons in the fire.  Too many projects spinning at one time.  Too many interruptions.  Too many phone calls.  Too many emails.  Too many things to do.  Too little time.  Stay focused as best you can, and don’t let things happen to you – not when you can make things happen.

A fearless approach.  Innovate.  Be different.  Those who are content to follow the crowd never get the chance to stand out.  Believe in yourself even when no one else does.

If you believe in what you are doing, your confidence will win over skeptics. Confidence doesn’t come naturally to most people.  Even the most successful people have struggled with it in their careers.  The good news is that you can develop confidence, just like any muscle or character trait, if you’re willing to work hard.

A disciplined tongue.  He or she who burns bridges better be a very good swimmer.  You must learn the art of communicating effectively with others.  Clear communications prevent miscommunications.  When you say what you mean, mean what you say and you keep your word, you foster trust.  Stick to the subject at hand, and avoid the temptation to dredge up old issues.

A clear conscience.  Always act like your mother is watching.  Don’t forget those rules you learned in kindergarten:  Play nice.  Be dependable.  Tell the truth.  If you can’t get to the top by being true to yourself and straight with everyone around you, your success will be hollow—and probably short-lived.

Dreams can come true.  These traits, coupled with hard work and perseverance, will keep your dreams from becoming just wishful thinking.


Mackay’s Moral:  You can’t get ahead if you don’t get started.