I remember the time that I swore to myself that I’d never be caught off guard again. I was in my new job on Capital Hill and it was the first week on the job. My new mentor at the office was the daughter of the other US Senator from Nevada so she knew everyone who was anyone. I tagged along with her one day to a meeting and I found myself in a mess!

She introduced me to the President of Zimbabwe! I shook his hand and all of a sudden about a thousand flashes went off! None of the photographers knew that I was just a newcomer on Capital Hill, but every single one got a picture of me …. And I’m sure what turned out was the “deer in the headlights” look. I completely froze, and looked up completely shaken up. I had NO idea that the photographers were even THERE and then on top of that, why would they want a picture of me?

I’ve since learned to take a great picture anywhere. You name it, the driver’s license, Sam’s Club to get a member card, at weddings or any function, I have trained myself that the second that I know a camera is around, I “eyeball the eye of the camera” and give my best smile; for as long as I need to!

But how do we handle situations in which we get caught off guard? Like asking to speak on a moments notice? What if someone yells at you at work for something that happens? What if you are asked to deliver a toast at an event? Or how about being asked to deliver a message or read a poem at a class reunion? That happened to me at my last reunion, and I told them that as a professional speaker, I never go anywhere unprepared. Therefore, at the encouragement of my husband, I turned them down.

But what if you can’t turn them down? What if you HAVE to get up and give a speech? What if you are lambasted in front of people at your workplace and can barely come up for air before you are supposed to respond?

I think that in any crisis situation, and these are DEFINITELY crisis situations, that it’s best to always have a plan. Here is what I recommend that my clients do:

Know that you are going to be caught off guard at some point.
Make a plan and memorize the plan.
When it happens, tell yourself to take several breaths and calm down.
Next, identify WHAT it is that the person wants from you. Do they want and need a response right then? Can the response wait?
If it can wait, then tell them thank you for expressing their views and that you’ll get back to them as soon as you have had a bit to think about it. Then, go to your office or get somewhere quiet and process what you need to do and say. Call a friend or mentor that you trust to help guide you through it.
If you have to address the situation right there, your plan is to come off as poised and confident as possible. Hold yourself together until you can respond without flying off the handle or saying anything stupid.
Address the situation. Ask yourself: What is the bottom line? What do you need to do or to say to make the other person or people happy?
Deliver your lines. Look the other person or people in their eyes as you deliver your lines. Do it with the most amount of sincerity as possible.
Be available to discuss it afterwards. Remain calm. You can always freak out later.
After the fact, reassess how you did. What would you have changed if you could go back? Store that in your memory bank and chalk one up to being ready!

A great example of someone being ready when they were caught off guard was Mayor Rudy Gulianni of NYC after 9/11. He went on TV almost immediately after almost being suffocated by the towers. He remained calm and showed sympathy to others even as the news of his good friends’ death was delivered to him.

Mayor Gulianni had been prepared. He had been reading about leadership and Winston Churchill the night before the tragedy. He was able to recall the story of how Churchill led his people in desperate times, and Guliani was able to call to memory this story as he himself had to present himself as a strong leader.

Being prepared takes time of course. But being prepared and ready for the unexpected can catapult you to the next level in your career. It can make people stand up and notice, and can teach you that anyone can survive and thrive, when they expect the unexpected!