I recall numerous occasions when I was asked to respond to an issue or provide an update on a project without having been asked to prepare any material. I found myself in an awkward situation since I had the background knowledge on the project or issue but no structure to how I would respond. You may have also experienced the situation of being put on the spot during a meeting, after delivering a presentation or presenting a proposal to a client or colleague. Having attended sessions and workshops with my local Speaking Club and Toastmasters International events, one of the key learnings was the ability to think on your feet when a question or topic was posed to you in an unexpected situation. The ability to think on your feet, to quickly articulate a response that is assertive, persuasive and credible, is a highly sought and respected skill, particularly in negotiations and in persuasive communication.
The basic concept of thinking on your feet involves thinking in “twos” or “threes”. What I mean by thinking in “threes”, for example, is simply breaking down your response into an introduction, body and conclusion. By also believing in the philosophy that part of any answer is already contained in the question, I can easily begin my introduction by restating the question, which would then lead me to the body of my response and finally my conclusion. A more advanced approach to thinking in “threes” involves breaking down your response into the past, present and future. For example, on a particular project you could state what was already done in the past, where the project was at the present and what the future actions or tasks are required to complete the project. Another “threes” concept that can be used relates to points of view. For example, you could state one point of view, then state the opposite point of view and conclude with a response describing the middle ground. A good example of thinking in “twos” is to describe the problem and then present a solution.
Other techniques that can improve your ability to think on your feet include:
- Read widely. Reading books and articles on topics of interest, and then recording summaries in a journal will provide you with a valuable repository of knowledge and facts that can be accessed on demand.
- Learn to relax. Relaxation techniques transition your mind into a state of higher performance allowing you to find your flow.
- Practice active listening. Active listening provides clarity of focus so that you can better understand the question and any related information.
- Ask for the question to be repeated. Asking for the question to be repeated is an excellent stalling technique that allows your mind to take the time to think about the question and conceive a response.
- The power of the pause. A strategically timed pause allows your mind to reflect and prepare an appropriate response. A pause also exudes confidence in a speaker and gains respect from the audience.
- Practice delivering in “twos” and “threes”. An excellent way to practice is to write down specific topics on pieces of paper that are placed in a container and then randomly selected to deliver presentations using the concept of “twos” and “threes”, for example: introduction, body and conclusion; past, present and future; global, national and local; negative, positive and optimal; past and present; problem and solution.
- Learn to conclude. A conclusion that is compelling creates a lasting impression and encourages a call to action, if required.
Dr John Kapeleris