Communicating in challenging situations

We all must present and communicate in pressure-filled and challenging situations. It could be a presentation before an important group of high-level executives deciding on whether you get promoted. It could be a critical meeting in front of key stakeholders where you need to persuade or motivate others to action. Or you are communicating to the media regarding a particular incident where you must not lose your cool, no matter what is asked of you.

Regardless of the situation, your message must be clear and concise, but you also must be engaging and conversational.

Consider the following tips for communicating in challenging situations:

Know your audience.

Who is your audience and key stakeholders? Who do you need to communicate with in a concise and credible fashion around an existing crisis or potentially challenging situation?

Knowing your audience will help you craft your message, which will increase the likelihood that that the message you are sending will be the message received.

Avoid the temptation to cram a ton of information or data into your head, or to communicate it as quickly as possible.

This is dangerous because you are likely to get confused or flustered if you think you have forgotten an important fact. Rather, go in with a few important themes or messages and play off these “talking points.” Be confident. It’s not about how much information you communicate, but rather, that what you communicate connects with your audience.

Don’t try to memorize your presentation.

It never works. Plus, even if you get the words right, your presentation will be stiff and stilted, rather than conversational and fluid. Jot down three or four key themes or messages and have them in front of you for reference.

Prepare for the Q&A.

No matter how effective you think your presentation is, you are likely to face a challenging series of questions afterward.

Therefore, consider the three toughest questions you are likely to be asked. Write them down and then practice answering each question. The key is to briefly answer the question, in 20 seconds or less, and then “bridge” or “transition” back to your main message. Then stop. Keeping your answers concise will help minimize the chance you say something that you did not intend to say.

Stay within the goal post.

When responding to a question, imagine a football goal post, where everything inside the goal post are your key points and themes that you will use to achieve your desired goal. Anything outside the goal post are areas and topics you want to avoid.

Don’t communicate something out of anger, impulse or frustration that has no strategic value or benefit. Remember, no one can make you say something based on the question you are asked.

The keys are discipline and self-awareness.

Body language matters.

It isn’t just what you say in these pressure-filled situations, but also what your body is communicating.

It’s critical that you keep your composure and don’t allow yourself to express uncontrolled anger or frustration at either what you perceive to be an unfair question or an attack from someone challenging you.

Strategic leadership is often about how you present and how you appear to others when the pressure is on.

Practice makes progress.

There is no substitute for practice. Recruit some trusted colleagues to engage you in a Q&A prior to your actual presentation or media scenario. This will allow you to refine your main message and practice your delivery and timing, while receiving feedback from your peers.

Practicing in this fashion will give you more confidence that you are truly prepared for the real presentation or Q&A.

Steve Adubato, PhD, is the author of five books including, "Lessons in Leadership.” His sixth book, "Lessons in Leadership 2.0: The Tough Stuff," will be released in summer 2023. He is an Emmy® Award-winning anchor with programs airing on Thirteen/WNET (PBS) and NJ PBS. He has also appeared on CNN, NPR and NBC’s Today show. Steve Adubato's "Lessons in Leadership" video podcast with co-host Mary Gamba airs Sundays at 10:00 a.m. on News 12+. For more information visit