Thinking on Your Feet
Staying Cool and Confident Under Pressure
"So, Susan, your report indicates you support forging ahead with the expansion, but have you considered the impact that this will have on our customers? Surely you remember the fiasco in Dallas last year when they tried the same type of project?"
Yikes! If you're Susan, you'll likely be feeling under pressure! You have to answer the question and allay the CEO's concerns about the disruption to customers. What do you do? What do you say? How do you say it? What if you can't think of anything to say?
This is not an uncommon situation. Whether you are put on the spot while attending a meeting, presenting a proposal, selling an idea, or answering questions after a presentation, articulating your thoughts and being able to think on your feet in unanticipated situations is a skill. And when you master it, your clever and astute responses will instill immediate confidence in what you are saying.
When you can translate your thoughts and ideas into coherent speech quickly, you ensure that your ideas are heard. You also come across as confident, persuasive and trustworthy.
Confidence is key when learning to think on your feet. When you present information, give an opinion or provide suggestions, make sure that you know what you are talking about and 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 are put unexpectedly in the hot seat.
In this article we look at some practical tips you can use to help you think on your feet.
How to Think on Your Feet
The secret of thinking on your feet is to be prepared: learn some skills and tactics, and do some preparation for situations that might put you under pressure. Then when you do find yourself faced with unexpected questions, you'll be ready to answer them. Here are some tips and tactics to help you do this:
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. Keep calm by:
- Taking deep breaths.
- Taking a second to practice a positive, affirming message.
- Clenching invisible muscles (thighs, biceps, feet) for a few seconds and releasing to relieve tension.
It comes as no surprise that listening is critical to thinking on your feet. Why do you need to listen? To make sure you fully understand the question or request before you reply. If you answer too soon, you risk going "off on a tangent." To help you with your listening remember to:
- Look directly at the questioner.
- Observe body language as well as what is being spoken.
- Try to 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 his or her intention?
Remember that the person is asking a question because he is interested in the topic that you're discussing. This might be a positive sign – they simply want to know more. But sometimes it can be negative – they want to see you squirm. Either way, they are interested in what you have to say. It's your privilege and pleasure not to disappoint them!
3. Have the Question Repeated
If you're feeling particularly under pressure, ask for the question to be repeated. This gives you a bit more time to think about your response.
At first glance people think this 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 on point. Remember, the questioner may well have just "thought on her feet" when coming up with a question, so when you give her 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 she really wants to learn more. However, if the repeated question is more aggressive than the first one, then you know that she is more interested in making you uncomfortable above 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 your mind. Often this is a defensive comment that will make you look insecure and anxious, rather than confident and composed. So win yourself some more time by using the following stall tactics:
- Repeat the question yourself. This gives you time to think and to clarify exactly what is being asked. It also allows you to rephrase if necessary and put a positive spin on the request. "How have I considered the impact on customers in order to make sure they have a continued positive experience during the expansion?"
- 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 in-store service?"
- Ask for clarification. Again, this will force the questioner to be more specific. You could ask him for further clarification by saying something like, "When you say you want to know how I've analyzed 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 that you are talking about the same thing.
5. 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 are 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
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, however, you risk losing people's interest, coming across as boring, or giving away things that are better left unsaid.
Remember, you aren't being asked to give a speech on the subject. The questioner wants to know something specific. Respect that by giving her a thoughtful and concise answer, with just enough supporting information.
This will help you stay focused. Instead of trying to tie together all the ideas that are running through your head, picking one main point and one supporting fact, will allow you to answer accurately and assuredly.
If you don't know the answer, say so. There is no point trying to make something up. You'll end up looking foolish and this will lower your confidence when you need to think on your feet in the future. There is (usually) nothing wrong with not knowing something. Simply make sure you that follow up as soon as possible afterward with a researched answer.
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 that your report will cover most of the obvious questions that the management team might have, but it can still be useful to take some time beforehand to consider what other questions you might be asked. For instance, what's different about this month? Are there any anomalies that might need explaining? How would you respond to questions about this? What additional information might you need to have to hand to support more detailed questions?
In particular, spend some time brainstorming the most difficult questions that people might ask, and preparing and rehearsing good answers to them.
8. Practice Clear Delivery
How you say something is almost as important as what you say. If you mumble or use "umm" or "ah" between every second word, confidence in what you are saying plummets. Whenever you are speaking with people, make a point to practice these key oration skills:
- Speak in a strong voice. (Don't confuse strong with loud!)
- Use pauses strategically to emphasize a point or slow yourself down.
- Vary your tone and pay attention to how your message will be perceived given the intonation you use.
- Use eye contact appropriately.
- Pay attention to your grammar.
- Use the level of formality that is appropriate to the situation.
9. Summarize and Stop
Wrap up your response with a quick summary statement. After that, resist adding more information. There may well be silence after your summary. Don't make the common mistake of filling the silence with more information! This is the time when other people are absorbing the information you have given. If you persist with more information, you may end up causing confusion and undoing the great work you've already done in delivering your response.
Use words to indicate that you are summarizing. For example, "in conclusion," "finally," and so on. Or briefly restate the question and your answer. For instance, you could say, "What did I do to analyze customer impacts? I reviewed the Dallas case files in detail, and prepared a 'What if' analysis for our own situation."
No one enjoys being putting on the spot or answering questions that they aren't fully expecting. The uncertainty can be stressful. But that stress doesn't need to get the better of you. You can overcome it by thinking on your feet. This will help you to stay cool and confident when you're under pressure, and to deliver assured and confident answers even when you're faced with unexpected questions.
You can improve your ability to think on your feet by applying the following practical tips:
- Have the question prepared.
- Use stall tactics.
- Use silence to your advantage.
- Stick to one point.
- Prepare some "what ifs."
- Practice clear delivery.
- Summarize and stop.
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