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In this warp-speed executive world, more and more we’re being expected to speak brilliantly and fluently on subjects we have woefully little knowledge of, field off-the-wall questions, and be nice and agreeable all at once, even though we’re stressed out to beat the band! In short, we’re all needing to “shift gears” ever more often. Not only is this environment requiring us to deal with tremendous pressures, it’s also demanding a specific communication skill few people have mastered, namely…

“Thinking on Your Feet
While Keeping Them Out of Your Mouth!”
Vol. 5, No. 2

Probably one of the most common requests Jan and I get from clients who visit us to improve their presentation and interviewing skills is learning how to speak impromptu and how to come up with the right answer or the right word to handle a dicey situation. They’ll often say “I do fine as long as I’m prepared.” Unfortunately, as we commented above, the world isn’t cutting us a whole lot of slack in that department.

Common situations where these people don’t feel prepared include carrying on conversations with people who are specialists in some arcane area they’ve never heard about, being blind-sided by questions on interviews or in front of an audience that they weren’t expecting, and introducing someone to their audience whom they’ve barely met.

Everybody wants to be able to “think on their feet” in situations like these, but almost nobody knows how to acquire this valuable talent. So let’s spend some time together to explore where we need this skill and how to cultivate it.

Before we do, though, let’s lay some groundwork by reviewing a couple of key ideas that will apply to whatever “thinking on your feet” situation you’ll encounter.

Let’s talk about this issue of preparation that stops so many people from being comfortable speaking impromptu. There is, in fact, no substitute for preparation. Dale Carnegie wrote that we should know 40 times more about our subject than we can include in a presentation. But the question really is what you mean by “preparation.” Most people labor under huge misconceptions about this. Let’s set the record straight.

First, you are way more prepared than you think! You possess a lifetime of knowledge and experience just waiting to be summoned to provide you just the right idea in any situation right when you need it.

Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker and trainer, has an interesting way to look at how the mind delivers up information. He suggests that the mind is like a jukebox. Say a friend uses a certain word in conversation with you. When you hear it, it “presses” a certain “button” in your brain that  triggers a “recording,” a memory from earlier in your life. This process can be deliberately harnessed to access information you can use in an impromptu situation, such as in answering someone in the Q & A of your presentation. Listen for key words in the speaker’s question, and let your mind be triggered to respond. You can also use this same process in networking and interviewing.

Learning how to use those “buttons” takes time and effort, but just being aware that your mind operates this way can give you a lot more confidence when entering impromptu territory.

Second, you think you have to tell an audience or interviewer everything about your subject. Most people who don’t feel prepared are not aware that, first, you can’t tell the audience everything you know about your subject, and, second, there’s a lot about it that they don’t need to know.

This can all be summed up in two great rules for all training and speaking:

  • Rule #1: Never dump the whole load.
  • Rule #2: They’ll never know what you didn’t tell them.

So relax! Just knowing you don’t have to provide an “info dump” can go a long way toward relieving preparation stress.

Now let’s look at a number of communication situations that often require us to think on our feet and how to do it.

Business Presentations

Here’s where you really want to come off as spontaneously and fresh as possible, but many professionals do things that have just the opposite effect. They start out by actually scripting out their presentations, then prepare text-heavy PowerPoints. In the presentation itself, people who write out their talk are quickly seduced by their notes, and if they get off track, they have a difficult time recovering. The result is a stilted mechanical delivery and a bored audience.

The “Thinking on Your Feet” cure

Never write out your presentation, and NEVER try to memorize it! Keep your notes in simple bullet list format similar to your PowerPoints, which also need to be simple as well (try, though, to use more graphics and “eye candy” images instead of text to make your points). If you get off track, you’ll find your place much quicker. Again, trust to the “two great rules” and your own deep knowledge of the subject. Also, constantly ask yourself, “What does this audience truly need to know?”

The Q & A

Most speakers don’t fear the Q & A as much as the main presentation or their opening statement in an interview since they’ve “prepared” by thinking of all the possible questions they could be asked and create responses to them. Good plan. What they dread, however, is a question either out of left field or a hostile one.

The “Thinking on Your Feet” cure

Have a set of statements ready to give yourself an extra moment to think of a response to that bizarre query. But please don’t use “that’s a good question.” It’s been done to death and sounds phony.

Instead, use what we call “ramp-up phrases.” A ramp-up phrase is just a short clip that gives you a moment to take a breath and collect your thoughts before providing the full answer. Some examples are:

“Your question clearly gives us food for thought.”
“I’m sure others have that same concern.”
“One of the things your question brings to mind is…”
“The biggest thing that implies is…”
“What that suggests is…”
“I think the thing that your comment makes us consider is…”
“Let me approach that this way.”

Ramp-up phrases make you look smooth and in control. And they’re not only good in the Q & A, but throughout a presentation or an interview, whenever you need to transition into a new idea or just need more time to think about what to say next.

By the way, don’t be afraid to pause a moment before answering. Your audience will stay with you, even through a bit of silence.


Probably the most challenging area where you need to “think on your feet” is in meeting others socially, especially people in an occupational or interest area different from yours. How do you start talking to a snake farmer or an astrophysicist, with no background in common with them?

The “Thinking on Your Feet” cure

When you don’t have a clue as to how to get started, do what the news reporters do. Ask questions. There’s a great old jingle that goes:

I have six honest servants.
They taught me all I knew.
Their names are What, and Where, and When,
and Why, and How, and Who.

Dale Carnegie once proclaimed, “Talk to people about themselves, and they’ll listen for hours!”

Introducing people formally

In our coaching, clients often related to us the experience of having to introduce someone they themselves have only recently met. They want to be gracious to that person, but they quickly fall back on the person’s formal credentials, creating a quite boring, if not unwelcoming, effect.

The “Thinking on Your Feet” cure

A sure-fire method of introducing someone is summed up in the acronym T-I-S, which stands for

Topic. Tell the audience either the title of the speaker’s talk or its content briefly.
Importance. Tell the listeners why this topic is critical to them and what they can expect to learn about it from this great authority they’re about to hear. And finally…
Speaker. Now give the person’s name and credentials, and especially their particular authority for speaking on this topic.

Here’s an example:

Topic: Tonight, we’re going to have the pleasure of hearing a speech on the 20 mistakes no speaker should commit.
Importance: This topic is especially important for anyone wanting to give the very best business presentation they can make. It’s also critical for anyone wanting to break into the speaking circuit.
Speaker: It’s my pleasure to introduce Dr. Milton Scheiner, a world-renowned public speaker and speech consultant to top officials in this country and around the world. Dr. Scheiner holds a B.S from Rutgers, an M.A. in speech from Baylor University, and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

Please join with me in welcoming Dr. Milton Scheiner!

During your intro, be sure to look over at the speaker and have a pleasant expression on your face. Avoid, if possible, reading your intro from notes, or if you must use them, hold them up away from the lectern. And be sure to lead the audience in applause to welcome the speaker.

Well, now do you feel more prepared to speak impromptu? Just learn to trust your own ability to communicate with others and your vast experience. Most thinking on your feet is, after all, just building great rapport with others.

Yours in good communication,

Neal & Jan Palmer

And that's our People Skills for Skilled People for today!

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