Thinking on Your Feet: 7 Tips

To get ahead, you need to be able to speak confidently when you’re put on the spot. Here are seven steps to follow so you keep your composure and respond well when you’re under pressure.

“So, Karen, you’re recommending that we migrate our current systems to a brand new platform? How do you plan on avoiding the disaster that happened with our Detroit division who tried this two years ago? Surely you’re not recommending we do the same thing.”

If you’re Karen, you’ve just been put on the spot. You have to answer the question clearly, confidently and concisely so that you dispel the CEO’s concerns and gain approval on your proposal. What do you say? How do you say it? What if your mind goes blank? 

Mastering the art of thinking on your feet is an essential career-building skill. Not only does it reveal how confident, credible and composed you are, it ensures your ideas are heard and acted upon. 

Whether you’re answering Q&A after a presentation, responding to your boss in a meeting, or interviewing with the press, you don’t have to ‘sweat it’ when you’re in the hot seat. Try these seven steps for successful speaking on the spot.

1. Relax.

You want your voice to sound confident and your brain to think clearly, so you have to be as relaxed as possible. This is of course is the opposite of how you are feeling so you must intentionally take steps to ‘manufacture’ relaxing affects. Take a few slow deep breaths – this relaxes the body and the mind. Be sure to avoid a pensive scowl or furrowed brow by consciously keeping your facial expressions neutral to positive.  Silently affirm yourself by thinking, “I can do this.” “I’m confident and in control.” “I’m the expert on this subject.” Remember, your audience can only see how you look and act on the outside; they never see how you feel on the inside.

2. Listen.

Often when we are in a high pressure situation and the adrenalin is pumping, we don’t stop to hear the actual question or concern of the speaker due to the static in our own minds. To make sure we understand the question and give the appropriate answer, focus intently on the other person.  Look at him or her directly in the eyes. Hear exactly what is being spoken. Observe the speaker’s body language.  This shows attentiveness, prevents distraction and increases comprehension. Try to interpret what is being said ‘between the lines.’ Is this a legitimate objection or an attack? Is it a simple request for more information or a test? Why is this person asking this question and what is it they really want? 

3. Repeat the question, if appropriate.

Especially in a large meeting or public setting, restate the question loudly enough for everyone to hear. This gives the questioner the opportunity to clarify the question, or more clearly articulate it the second time. In the process, you gain more time to think and formulate your answer. Also, restating allows you to take control of the question and re-phrase or neutralize it if needed.

4. Ask a clarifying question.

If the question is too broad and you want to narrow the focus before you can effectively answer, ask them a question first before you respond. This ensures you reply with a more meaningful helpful answer, plus it shows you care and are listening. For example, in the above scenario, Karen could have asked, “Which aspects of the Detroit migration concern you the most about this project?”

5. Pause and Think.

Silence, used appropriately, communicates you are in charge of the situation and comfortable in the setting. When you pause you look and sound poised and confident. Avoid the temptation to answer too quickly – even though you may have the perfect reply.  This often results in speaking too fast and saying too much. A well-timed pause to collect your thoughts tells your brain to slow down. It also helps you organize and prioritize the content of your answer. 

6. Use an organized structure.

In addition to anxiety, another key reason we freeze or go blank when placed on the spot is because so many ideas begin to stream through our minds at once. Avoid verbalizing that stream of consciousness (also known as rambling, or winging it). Remember, the questioner does not want or expect you to give a speech on the subject. What they do want is a clear concise answer with just enough supporting information to satisfy their concern. This requires on-the-spot structure. Limit yourself to two, no more than three key points with a statement of evidence under each. For example, here’s how Karen could have responded to her CEO:

“Yes, Bob, I do recommend we migrate our current systems to the new platform. There are three main reasons why this transition will successfully avoid your Detroit concerns: First, the new platform features 99% defect free software…” (give one or two statements of supporting evidence).

“Second, it integrates seamlessly with all our systems…

And third, our migration strategy ensures no downtime for our customers…”

By focusing on two or three main points, and giving just the right amount of supporting evidence, you sound confident, clear and concise.

7. Summarize and Stop.

Conclude your response with a quick summary statement and stop. Most likely, a brief period of silence will follow as listeners are absorbing your message. Resist the common error of filling this silence with more information. If you ramble on with more details, you may end up causing confusion, belaboring the point, or opening up a can of worms. Here’s how Karen could have summarized:  “So Bob, in summary, I do hear and appreciate your concerns; however, my team and I have thoroughly reviewed the challenges of the Detroit migration, and we’re confident the plan for our division will succeed. With the new bug-free software, seamless integration, and customer uptime, our strategy will deliver all the benefits outlined in the proposal and ensure the success of our company and customers.”

Thinking on your feet means staying in control of the situation. Remember to relax your body and breathe deeply. Listen actively to the questioner. Repeat their question if necessary, and ask them a question if necessary to narrow the focus. Use the reflective pause to aid clear calm thinking. Then, when you’re ready to speak on the spot, be sure to apply a solid structure – limit your answer to three key points with brief supporting evidence under each. Summarize your points and stop. By practicing these simple steps, you will come across as a confident, credible, and trustworthy expert who knows how to think on her feet and speak on the spot.

Darlene Price is the president and cofounder of Well Said!, Inc., a training and consulting company specializing in high-impact presentations and effective communication. She has coached thousands of executives and professionals at companies such as AT&T, IBM, Macy’s, Microsoft, Motorola, UPS, and Xerox, among others and is the author of Well Said: Presentations and Conversations that Get Results.  

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