How to Get Better at Thinking on Your Feet

Most of us can think back to a time when we were in a meeting, reception or other business situation where we were caught off guard when someone asked a question or asked us to “say a few words” or “give a brief explanation” in front of a large group.

I’ll never forget one of the first times this happened to me. I was at a large national tradeshow reception. The reception was my idea. I had helped plan it and created a large portion of the guest list. As the room filled, my boss took the microphone to welcome the attendees. And then he surprised me by asking me to speak. I was 28 or 29 and completely unprepared. (I’m also part of the 50 to 70 percent of people who fear public speaking.) When 100+ faces turned toward me, I panicked. I reiterated his greeting and made a few short shaky remarks. And then, seeing my fear, my boss rescued me by taking back the microphone.

Later, of course, I thought of a million things I could have/should have said. At least half the people in that room knew me and I should have guessed that my boss would assume I’d want to say something to them as a group. Why hadn’t I prepared? What could I have done to enable me to better handle this impromptu opportunity—to think better on my feet?

Moving from panic to quickly organized thinking isn’t easy, especially when, in the moment, many of us feel that our minds are blank. How can you organize what doesn’t seem to be there—your thoughts? How can you quickly say something coherent … maybe even intelligent or, heaven forbid, witty?

While extroverts have an advantage here, experts say that the ability to think on your feet is a learnable skill for anyone. Professional speaker and trainer Cara Lane, compares the pressure to that of being a batter in a baseball game and offers this encouragement, “You don’t know what you’re going to get when you step up to the plate. Could be a curve ball or a fast ball. But you’ve got to swing. Trying is important and will help you become better. It’s an opportunity.”

Here are several strategies for calming your fears, planning ahead and reacting more easily when under pressure to speak. (Impromptu speaking situations vary, so some tips obviously won’t work in all situations.)

  1. Learn to relax under pressure and control any self-doubt. Pause or slow down and focus on your breathing, suggests Remember that you’re being called on because you have something to say. The person asking for your input, feedback or words is aware of your expertise or relationship with the subject. Pausing makes you look careful and considerate. So don’t feel pressure to start talking immediately.
  2. Prepare. If you’re heading into a meeting, event or other work situation where you’re the expert on a particular topic, gather your information. Be prepared for commonly asked questions. Capture storytelling material (amusing anecdotes) that might be helpful or illustrate your views at times when you can’t prepare in advance. Lane suggests having a “pocket speech” or formula that you use consistently in these situations. An example would be saying: “On the one hand, I see …; On the other hand this could be …; The bottom line is …” Being able to fall back on a standard formula will help you organize your responses and be calm.
  3. Buy time by paraphrasing what you’ve been asked or by asking a question. (This would obviously not work if you’ve been asked to greet a crowd.) If someone’s asked you a question in a meeting or speaking engagement, be sure to look directly at them and then repeat their question in your words. “So, I’m being asked about my thoughts on …” If you need clarification, ask a question. Or ask the person to repeat their question so everyone in the audience can hear. This gives you a moment to organize your response. (If the question or request is complicated and you truly need more time to consider options, suggest that you follow up.)
  4. Show appreciation and structure your answer in the most clear, brief way. If you’re answering a question, begin by showing appreciation for the question, suggests Lane: “I really do appreciate that this person has brought up this issue …” Don’t beat around the bush if you have an answer. State your position, give the reason or an example and then restate your position. Another structure would be to state the problem, your solution and the benefit of your solution. Or simply follow your “pocket speech” formula as outlined above by Lane in #2.

Related reading: Giving a Perfect Impromptu Speech When You Hate Public Speaking

Related reading: Handling Q&As After Your Presentation

Don’t let large audiences and impromptu speaking moments intimidate you. Learn to speak on your feet so the next time you’re called upon to answer a question, say a few words or explain something, you can shed that deer in the headlights feeling and feel ready.

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