How to Think On Your Feet

POSTED: Oct. 26, 2016

Program ParticipantsOne of the most common questions that is asked during my presentation skills training program is “How can I better think on my feet?” You see, people may feel well prepared to deliver content, yet they feel unprepared to elaborate further on that content or they may fall apart when answering questions. Thinking on your feet spans three important areas that will be covered in this article, including: When presenting information, when elaborating and when answering questions. The key to thinking well on your feet is to decide the best approach to presenting information in a clear, concise and thoughtful way.

When presenting information:

  • Be fully present. To be present in the moment requires mindfulness and self-awareness. There should be nothing else on your mind except the information you are presenting. Don’t get sidetracked by self-talk about yourself (“Why is everyone staring at me?” “Do I look okay?” “Do I sound stupid?”) or about something else on your mind (“Did I leave that confidential paper on my desk?”). When you are fully present, you are living in that moment alone. You are bringing your best self to the presentation. You are fully aware of everything you are saying and doing. A great tool to help with presence is deep breathing. Awareness of your breath anchors you in the present.
  • Focus. People will often claim that they are experiencing a brain freeze, they forget what they want to say, or they can’t string together two coherent sentences. Lack of focus comes from a cluttered mind, filled with too many thoughts. Take a moment to clear your mind. Remind yourself of what you need to do here. What information do you have to share?
  • Speak from your knowledge base. When you know your topic extremely well, you are best equipped to think on your feet because you are sharing what you know best. People who often struggle with thinking on their feet are either absolutely terrified of speaking in public or they may not have an extensive knowledge of the topic. Lacking a deeper level of knowledge, they may be more prone to offering vague, ambiguous content. Know your topic, and you will be able to handle anything.
  • Don’t ramble. There is nothing more deadly than listening to a presenter who rambles. Example (and I know you have sat in and witnessed people like this): “Let me elaborate on this concept a bit more…Two days ago, I met with John Hopkins, CEO of Hopkins International. He’s been a big client of ours for more than 15 years. I know his kids and his wife. We’ve socialized with them over the years. He’s a great guy, you know? We need more clients like him, because he gets it. He understands our business, and we certainly understand his. I mean, I remember when his company was just getting started, and we were one of the first outside vendors he used, so we have history with him, right? So anyway…” Yada yada yada. That’s what rambling sounds like. Much of that extra fluff isn’t necessary, especially when the time allowed for business meetings keeps decreasing. Which leads me to my next point…
  • Get to the point quickly! One of the greatest desires of senior-level executives is this: Get to the point quickly. Stack the information so you are presenting a statement first, then backing it up with more information, not the other way around where you keep the audience guessing until you deliver the big reveal (your main statement).

When elaborating information:

  • Expand your thought or idea. Often when you are presenting, you may feel the need to go off script to elaborate or explain something more clearly. You may sense a lack of energy around the topic or content. Use an example. Share a short anecdote. “Let me elaborate on this concept a bit more so you understand how it applies to our own Going Green Initiative here at the ABC Company. Two days ago, I met with John Hopkins, CEO of Hopkins International. He told me that, beginning in 2017, his company is only dealing with companies that hold the Going Green certification. Fortunately, our company is already certified. Not only is Going Green a smart investment for our company, it’s becoming the Gold Standard by which our company and others like us are measured by important clients such as Hopkins International.” And then return to the rest of your script.

Now that I have provided this example for you, let me warn you against over-elaboration. It is good to set a short example that will help get your point across. What is not good is going on and on and on and on.

  • Respond on the spot. Someone may briefly interrupt you on the spot and ask you to elaborate on what you just shared. Elaboration simply means to explain something in a deeper way by providing more detailed information. When someone asks you the question, “Could you elaborate on this idea a little more?” then ask yourself this question: “What is the most important information I need to share to get my point across?”

When answering questions:

  • Listen to key words and phrases. What is being asked of you? If someone asks a broad question, drill down to the specifics. For instance, “Jane recently attended the AMA annual marketing conference in San Diego. Jane, give us some highlights of the conference.” The key phrase here is “conference highlights.” You can respond to this question in one of two ways. First, you could answer this question at face value and create your own interpretation of what you believe the phrase “conference highlights” means. Second, you could ask a clarifying question, such as, “What specifically would you like me to highlight?” To this, you may get a response like, “What were two or three innovative ideas that you took away from the conference that you think we could apply within our marketing department?” That is quite a different direction. It’s much more specific. Now Jane can work with focused words like “innovative ideas” and “apply.” Unless Jane brought conference notes with her to this meeting (which she may not have), Jane now faces the daunting task of sifting through her memory. There’s a lot of stuff in there. How does she sort through? How does she recall? How does she do this when all eyes are staring at her right at this very minute? She quickly thinks of marketing’s many areas, like promotion, publicity, advertising, sales, customer relations, to name a few. What stands out? She recalls what she learned by looking at each of these areas of marketing. “What did I learn about customer relations? What did I learn about sales?” She can also tap her memory by using her senses. “What did I see? Hear? Feel?” She may remember a few powerful visual images of a model to track customer inquiries. Now she has recalled and can share several innovative ideas. If she needs to, she quickly jots down a few notes on her note pad, and she’s ready to respond.
  • Be prepared. There is a lesson from Jane’s example above. Be prepared. Never go into any meeting unprepared. When you attend an industry conference, be prepared for people to ask you about it. If you met with one of the biggest clients recently, you know you will be asked about that meeting. When you understand how people think, and the kind of information they desire, you can anticipate their needs. The person who effortlessly answers an “unexpected” question is someone who anticipated that question. Being prepared can earn you the reputation of someone who thinks well on their feet. Your secret? You simply prepare.
  • Share what you know. Thinking on your feet does not mean making up stuff! We’ve all sat in a room when a person was asked a question, and you could tell that the person was not only unprepared but had no idea what was being said. If the question is outside your expertise, simply state that. If Stephanie is better qualified to answer that question, direct it to her.
  • Take notes if needed. I’m kinesthetic, which means that I take a lot of notes. If I have something important to say, or have a question that I want to ask, or have a question I need to answer, I often write it on my note pad because I fear that I will forget what I want to say. Sound familiar? Take a note pad with you to all meetings. There is nothing worse than having no pen and no note pad. Don’t just “show up.” Be prepared when you walk in the door.
  • One final bonus: To stretch your thinking further, consider studying improvisation. Take an improvisation class. Improvisation exercises will train your brain to think on the spot.

Honestly, some people think on their feet better than others. You may not be able to magically change yourself into that other person. Instead, work with your strengths. Simply improve upon your natural abilities and talents.

Learning to think on your feet is a skill that will serve you well throughout your career. It has less to do with speed and more to do with accuracy, giving people the information they need. Remember that thinking on your feet can happen when you are presenting or elaborating information and when you are answering questions. Using these simple techniques – and practicing them – will help you to become more comfortable with thinking on your feet.

If you are interested in expanding your presentation skill set, check out Kent State’s “Delivering Powerful Presentations” program.