We all face moments of pressure in our lives but the most intense pressure is when we are put on the spot in front of influential people while attending a meeting, presenting a proposal, selling an idea, or answering questions after a presentation. Articulating your thoughts in unanticipated situations and staying poised while you compose your thoughts and prepare your response is a highly coveted skill. When you master it, your clever and astute responses instil immediate confidence in what you are saying and in you personally.
When you can translate your thoughts and ideas into coherent speech quickly, your ideas will always be heard because you come across as being confident, persuasive, and trustworthy.
Confidence is essential when learning to think on your feet. When you present information, give an opinion or provide suggestions, make sure you not only know what you are talking about but ensure that you are well informed. This doesn’t mean you have to know everything about everything, but if you are reasonably confident in your knowledge of the subject, that confidence will help you to remain calm and collected even if you find yourself unexpectedly in the hot seat.
There is no substitute for preparation if you are to master the art of thinking on your feet, but there are some definite skills you need to learn:
This is often the opposite of how you are feeling when you’re under pressure, but in order for your voice to remain calm and for your brain to “think”, you have to be as relaxed as possible.
- Take deep breaths
- Take a second and give yourself a positive and affirming message
- Clench invisible muscles (thighs, biceps, feet) for a few seconds and release.
Listening is critical to thinking on your feet. The purpose is to make sure you fully understand the question or request before you reply. If you answer too soon, you risk going into a line of thinking that is unnecessary or inappropriate. When listening remember to:
- Look directly at the questioner
- Observe body language as well as what is being said
- Interpret what is being suggested by the question or request. Is this an attack, a legitimate request for more information, or a test? Why is this person asking this and what is the intention?
People generally ask questions because they are interested. Some interest is positive – they simply want to know more – and some is negative – they want to see you squirm. Either way they are interested in what you have to say and it’s your privilege and pleasure not to disappoint them!
3. Have the Question Repeated
If you’re feeling unduly pressurised, ask for the question to be repeated. This gives you a bit more time to think about your response.
People often think this ploy will only make them look unsure. It doesn’t. It makes you look concerned that you give an appropriate response. It also gives the questioner an opportunity to rephrase and ask a question that is more to the point. The questioner may well have just “thought on his/her feet” in asking the question, so when you give them a second chance, the question may well be better articulated and clearer to all.
By asking to have the question repeated you also get another opportunity to assess the intentions of the questioner. If it is more specific or better worded, chances are the person really wants to learn more. If the repeated question is more aggressive than the first one, then you know the person is more interested in making you uncomfortable than anything else. When that’s the case, the next tip comes in very handy.
4. Use Stall Tactics
Sometimes you need more time to get your thoughts straight and calm yourself down enough to make a clear reply. The last thing you want to do is blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, which may very well be a defensive comment that only makes you look insecure and anxious rather than confident and composed.
- Repeat the question yourself. This gives you time to think and you clarify exactly what is being asked. It also allows you to rephrase if necessary and put a positive spin on the request.
- Narrow the focus. Here, you ask a question of your own to not only clarify, but to bring the question down to a manageable scope. “You’re interested in hearing how I’ve considered customer impacts. What impacts are you most interested in: product availability or service?”
- Ask for clarification. Again, this forces the questioner to be more specific and hopefully get more specific. “When you say you want to know how I’ve analysed customer impacts, do you mean you want a detailed analysis or a list of the tools and methods I used?”
- Ask for a definition. Jargon and specific terminology may present a problem for you. Ask to have words and ideas clarified to ensure you are talking about the same thing.
- Use Silence to your Advantage
We are conditioned to believe that silence is uncomfortable. However, if you use it sparingly, it communicates that you are in control of your thoughts and confident in your ability to answer expertly. When you rush to answer you also typically rush your words. Pausing to collect your thoughts tells your brain to slow everything down.
6. Stick to One Point and One Supporting Piece of Information
There’s a high risk that, under pressure, you’ll answer a question with either too much or too little information. If you give too short an answer, you risk letting the conversation slip into interrogation mode. (You’ll get another question, and the questioner will be firmly in control of how the dialogue unfolds). When your reply is too long, you risk losing people’s interest, coming across as boring, or giving away things that are better left unsaid. Bear in mind that you aren’t being asked to give a speech on the subject. The questioner wants to know something. Respect that and give them an answer, with just enough supporting information.
This technique gives you focus. Rather than trying to tie together all the ideas that are running through your head, when you pick one main point and one supporting fact, you allow yourself to answer accurately and assuredly. If you don’t know the answer, say so. There is no point trying to make something up. You will end up looking foolish and this will lower your confidence when you need to think on your feet in the future. There is nothing wrong with not knowing something, provided you say you don’t know the answer and commit yourself to following up with a researched answer as soon as possible afterwards.
7. Prepare some “what ifs”
With a bit of forethought, it’s often possible to predict the types of questions you might be asked, so you can prepare and rehearse some answers to questions that might come your way. Let’s say you are presenting the monthly sales figures to your management team. The chances are your report will cover most of the obvious questions that the management team might have, but what other questions might you predict? What’s different about this month? What new questions might be asked? How would you respond? What additional information might you need to have available to support more detailed questions?
No one enjoys being putting on the spot or answering questions that you aren’t fully expecting. The uncertainty can be stressful. That stress doesn’t need to be unmanageable and you can become more proficient at thinking on your feet if you remember the strategies outlined above. Essentially, thinking on your feet means staying in control of the situation. Ask questions, buy time for yourself, and remember to stick to one point and make that one point count. When you are able to zoom in on the key areas of concern, you’ll answer like an expert and you will impress your audience, and yourself, with your confidence and poise.
Remember that internal misjudgements are six times more likely to cause business failure than external factors. The message is clear … keep objective help close at hand at all times, and if you don’t have it, get it without delay.
Success in business, as in life, is all about getting the fundamentals right … and the actions you take!
Confidence is the foundation for all business relations. The degree of confidence a man has in others, and the degree of confidence others have in him, determines a man’s standing in the commercial and industrial world.