I had a hard time falling asleep the night before my first ask. My brain was in overdrive: What am I going to say? How will he react? There were also a thousand “what if?” scenarios I didn’t feel prepared to deal with.
In hindsight, the stakes weren’t very high. But that didn’t matter. I had just been promoted to my first frontline fundraising role and this was my very first ask. I think it was for $2,500.
Asking people to give their money away can still make me a little anxious—particularly when it’s a lot of money. I expect this will always be the case. And I’ve learned to be okay with that.
Some level of performance-related anxiety is a normal part of any meaningful work. Unchecked however, nerves can get in the way and limit our effectiveness.
Can we ever be anxiety free? Probably not.
As professionals, we should instead focus on increasing self-awareness and learning to manage our emotions. This post will offer some thoughts on how we might do that.
And, just to be clear, I’m using “anxiety” in the non-clinical sense. Synonyms for the purpose of this article might be “worry,” or “nerves.” This is certainly not medical advice.
What I’m talking about is simply the tension between desire and fear. You want something to happen (get a gift), but there’s a possibility it won’t happen (your prospect might say “no”). There’s uncertainty involved. Our brains are hardwired to feel uncomfortable with uncertainty. It’s normal. It’s human.
I spent a number of years training to be a professional orchestral musician. Fundraising is a better career for me, but I did learn some valuable lessons preparing for recitals, auditions, and other scenarios where the pressure was on and I had one shot to get it right.
So, here goes:
1. Remember that anxiety is normal
In her book The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox-Cabane offers some very practical advice for “destigmatizing mental discomfort.” First, remember that anxiety is normal and that every person throughout human history has experienced it.
To go one step further, Fox-Cabane suggests that you think of someone several life stages (or professional levels) ahead of you and remember that that person also experiences uncomfortable emotions when facing uncertainty.
Destigmatizing anxiety in this way prevents it from descending into shame. You can work through a case of nerves, but feeling ashamed of yourself for being anxious is debilitating. Remember: negative thoughts are normal. Don’t try and suppress them, you’ll just experience more shame. Instead, neutralize them by remembering that everyone—every single person—wrestles with anxiety and self-doubt.
2. Prepare, prepare, prepare
Preparation will give you confidence. I firmly believe that 80% (maybe more) of the work that goes into any ask happens before you even get in the room.
Think about it: your prospect research, the questions you plan to ask, the idea you decide to pitch, the case for support you assemble, the objections you’re ready to counter—all things you can prepare well in advance.
Do the heavy lifting beforehand. Your confidence will go up; your nerves will settle down.
3. Visualize the upside
Before an ask, I sometimes catch myself focusing on everything that could possibly go wrong. This is fine insofar as it helps me prepare my pitch and get ready to address objections. But, after a certain point, it’s just unhelpful.
If negative thinking or negative self-talk start to take over, spend a few minutes visualizing things going well. Because after all, your prospect could say “yes!”
Chronic worriers may have a hard time doing this, but it’s a habit worth cultivating. See if you can tip the scales here. Try spending more time envisioning positive outcomes than you do worrying about negative outcomes.
And get specific! How do you feel when your prospect says “yes”? What does his smile look like? His eyes? How does the handshake at the end of the meeting feel? Picture his signed pledge agreement arriving by mail. You get the idea.
4. Goals vs. desires
There’s only so much you can control in fundraising. In fact, you can do your job flawlessly and still get a “no thanks” from your prospect.
Develop a healthy detachment to the outcome of each individual ask.
Now, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t be concerned with big picture individual or team goals. You need those. But on a micro level—like each interaction with a prospect—try and distinguish between goals and desires. It will help you focus on what you can control.
For example, it’s fine to desire that your prospect will say “yes” to your $100,000 proposal. You should.
But you don’t have complete control over her decision, now do you? Unless your skill set includes Jedi mind tricks, you don’t get to say “yes” for her.
Your job is simply to represent your organization as well as you possibly can, and confidently, but respectfully, ask for a gift. Yes, be persuasive, be winsome, but know that you prospect has the right and freedom to say “no.”
If you make it your goal for her to say “yes,” you might be setting yourself up for major disappointment.
5. Access warmth and compassion
This one could just as easily have been titled, “Get out of your own head.” But, better to phrase things in the positive! Nothing will make you more self-conscious than telling yourself to be less self-conscious.
Here are some anxious thoughts I deal with: Does this person like me? Am I persuasive enough? Am I at all credible?
As far as inner dialogues go, these thoughts are completely unhelpful. They usually lead to anxiety, and they close down my body language. At worst, they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, what should you do if your mind wanders down this path? Here are a few more ideas from Olivia Fox-Cabane.
Prior to the meeting, pretend you’re getting ready to meet with a good friend or beloved relative. Note how you feel in that moment. Focus on the warmth. And you’re not thinking of yourself, right? Instead, you’re thinking about how great it is you get to see someone you care about.
Practice appreciation. Be thankful that your prospect is giving up some of his time for you and your organization. He doesn’t have to. In fact, he’s probably pretty busy. Yet, he’s taking time out of his day to hear what you have to say. Appreciate that. It too will help you access warm feelings for your prospect.
Next, when you sit down with the person, think of two things you approve of about him. The simpler the better: “his smile is so great”, or “his shoes are always immaculately polished.”
And finally—this technique comes from neuroscientist Dr. Privahini Bradoo—imagine the person you’re speaking with having invisible angel wings. Yes, it’s a little cheesy, but more importantly, it works. The point is to trick your brain, even if only for a second, into seeing someone as fundamentally good. Warm feelings will follow.
All of these techniques will help you flip your inner dialogue. You’ll go from worrying how you’re being perceived to valuing things about your prospect. This shift will give you a more positive mindset. The warm feelings you access will come through in your speech and body language, and ultimately, make you more likeable. And, believe it or not, more persuasive too.
Getting rid of your nerves may not be realistic, but you can certainly learn to manage them. And to be effective in spite of them. The techniques above will help prevent anxiety from derailing your focus, co-opting your body language, and getting in the way of your asking.
Anyone else deal with nerves or even anxiety when it comes to asking? I’d love to hear about your “go to” techniques for managing your emotions.