Think on your feet

At Toastmasters, the members practice the art of thinking on one’s feet. Here are some tips which I collected from the web.

Staying Cool and Confident Under Pressure

“So, Susan, your report indicates you support forging ahead with the expansion but have you considered the impact 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’re likely 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 in unanticipated situations is a skill. Thinking on your feet is highly coveted skill and when you master it, your clever and astute responses will instil immediate confidence in what you are saying.

When you can translate your thoughts and ideas into coherent speech quickly, you ensure your ideas are heard. You also come across as being 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 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.

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 and debate, you’ll be ready to draw on these tactics and preparation, and so stay poised while you compose your thoughts and prepare your response. Here are some tips and tactics:

1. Relax
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.

  • Take deep breaths
  • Take a second and give yourself a positive and affirming message
  • Clench invisible muscles (thighs, biceps, feet) for a few seconds and release.

2. Listen
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 into a line of thinking that is unnecessary or inappropriate. 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 the intention?
Remember that the person is asking a question because he or she is interested. Some interest is positive – they simply want to know more – and some is 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 his or her feet” to ask the question, so when you give them 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 the person really wants to learn more. If the repeated question is more aggressive than the first one, then you know the person is more interested in making you uncomfortable than 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 only makes you look insecure and anxious rather than confident and composed.

  • Repeat the question yourself. This gives you time to think and you 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 and hopefully get more to a specific point. “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 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 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 and One Supporting Piece of Information
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, 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. Respect that and give them an answer, with just enough supporting information.

This technique gives you focus. Rather than trying to tie together all the ideas that are running through your head, when you pick one main point and one supporting fact, you allow yourself to answer accurately and assuredly.

If you don’t know the answer, say so. There is no point trying to make something up. You will 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 follow up as soon as possible afterwards 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 your report will cover most of the obvious questions that the management team might have, but what other questions might you predict? What’s different about this month? What new questions might be asked? How would you respond? 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 adsorbing 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 you are summarizing (i.e. “in conclusion,” “finally”) or briefly restate the question and your answer. So – 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.”

Key points:

No one enjoys being putting on the spot or answering questions that you aren’t fully expecting. The uncertainty can be stressful. That stress doesn’t need to be unmanageable and you can think on your feet if you remember the strategies we just discussed. Essentially, thinking on your feet means staying in control of the situation. Ask questions, buy time for yourself, and remember to stick to one point and make that one point count. When you are able to zoom in on the key areas of concern, you’ll answer like an expert and you impress your audience, and yourself, with your confidence and poise

1 comment so far ↓

#1 C'est Moi on 12.03.08 at 2:04 pm

I would not listen to these gurus: that is why the whole world is in financial crisis nowadays; the thrill of outperforming your competitor, the exhilaration of being a super CEO when you are dealing with shareholders money comes to a halt when the fundamentals catch up with you, and the CEO quietly disappears with his large bonuses.

Management Gurus: Charlatans or Visionaries?
Excerpts from The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus

Shelley once claimed that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.” Today that honor belongs to management theorists. Names such as Drucker and Peters may not have the same ring as Wordsworth or Keats; yet, wherever one looks, management theorists are laying down the law, reshaping institutions, refashioning the language, and, above all, reorganizing people’s lives. In late 1994, the revelation that the late Princess Diana had sought help from Anthony Robbins, a business-motivation guru who encourages his clients to “unleash the power within” by walking on red hot coals, caused barely a flicker of surprise in Fleet Street. The simultaneous news that Newt Gingrich, then Speaker-elect of the House of Representatives, was preparing for his new job “by reading Peter Drucker” was greeted with relief.

At the same time as the princess and the Speaker were seeking out management theory, millions of more mundane human beings were having it done unto them. Many of those laid off in the 1990s were “reengineered” out of their jobs. The name was used in a book, Reengineering the Corporation, published in 1993 by two management theorists, James Champy and Michael Hammer, to refer to the method of reorganizing businesses around “processes,” such as selling, rather than administrative fiefs, such as marketing departments.

AN INDUSTRY IS BORN. The reengineering craze is merely the latest, most potent example of the bewildering power of management gurus throughout this century. Interest in management theory went into overdrive in the 1980s as the rich world, and America in particular, tried to come to terms with the rise of Japan, the spread of computers, and radical changes in working patterns. For a new breed of increasingly evangelical management theorists, led by Tom Peters, the accompanying corporate self-analysis proved a bonanza. In the summer of 1982, Peters and another consultant from McKinsey, Robert Waterman, published In Search of Excellence, which boldly (and correctly) told American businessmen that they were in better shape than they thought. The book turned its authors into millionaires.

Ever since In Search of Excellence, the guru industry has boomed. The gurus themselves are only the most visible tip of a much larger management iceberg that incorporates business schools, management consultancies, and much of the business press. American firms alone now spend $20 billion a year on outside advice. Even in cynical Britain, some 40 companies provide adventure-based management training courses in which fat merchant bankers and balding bond traders swing across rivers and tell their colleagues what they really think about them.

THE AGE OF ANXIETY. Wherever management theory has been invoked, fear and anxiety seem to have followed. Despite their invariable presence at the scene of the crime, the gurus have not yet been rounded up for questioning. In one way, this is right. The underlying reasons why people have lost their jobs (or feel more insecure in them) have to do with competition, technological change, and government budgets. However, it is not quite enough for the management gurus to claim that they were the servants of macroeconomic forces beyond their control. Management theory has played an enormous role in how those forces have affected people.

THE MANAGEMENT THEORY PARADOX. While most other academics — even scientists and economists — have to wait decades to see their work have any practical impact, the gurus’ ideas are often tested immediately. Yet, this intellectual discipline is far from respectable. As Peter Drucker puts it, people use the word “guru” only because they do not want to say “charlatan.”

The doubts are not confined to snooty people living in ivory towers. Talk privately to virtually any publisher of management books, and you will probably unearth the attitude: “Isn’t it incredible that this stuff sells?” Corner a consultant, fill him or her up with alcohol, and the chances are that he or she will admit the same thing. Even those who have fired thousands in the name of one of these theories will blush awkwardly when asked how “intellectual” management theory is. Sooner or later, the word “bullshit” appears.

Even if it is not all “bullshit,” then enough of it is to disqualify the rest. In many cases, the blame lies with the tub-thumping charlatans (“Transform your company in three days for $10,000”). Such people make convenient scapegoats. The real problem is that there are grave doubts about the serious canon of management theory.

WITNESSES FOR THE PROSECUTION. Management theory, according to the case against it, has four defects: it is incapable of self-criticism; it usually confuses rather than educates; it rarely rises above common sense; and it is faddish and bedeviled by contradictions. The implication is that management gurus are the witch doctors of our age. Sprung suspiciously from the “great university of life,” they exist largely because people let them get away with it.

The first charge against management theory — its lack of self-criticism — we happily accept. The second charge — that much of it is incomprehensible gobbledygook — we also happily accept. The idea for this book sprang out of a Swiss management forum, where a room full of German businessmen endeavored heroically to understand what an American guru was trying to say.

What of the third, more substantial charge: that most of what the gurus say is blindingly obvious? Some things that strike us nowadays as blindingly obvious were anything but when far-sighted management theorists began to talk about them. Besides, there is nothing inherently wrong with stating the obvious. One argument for hiring management consultants is that they can see what insiders can’t.

The most common criticism of management theory focuses on the fourth charge: its faddishness. True, management theorists have a passion for permanent revolution that would have made Leon Trotsky or Mao Zedong green with envy. But, such complaints miss the point. The real problem is that management theory is pulling institutions and individuals in conflicting directions. Most management theorists have not worked out whether it is important to be global or local, big or small, to be run in the interests of shareholders or stakeholders. Usually, they end up telling managers to do both. One of the more fashionable words in management theory is “trust.” This, the theory holds, will keep “knowledge workers” loyal and productive. Yet the gurus also preach “flexibility,” usually shorthand for firing people.

Some would argue that all these contradictions indicate that management theory is a contradiction in terms. We prefer to see it as an immature discipline. Many of its fundamental tenets have yet to be established. Yet, it has generated debates on such momentous subjects as globalization, the nature of work, and the changing structure of companies. Dig into virtually any area of management theory and you will find, eventually, a coherent position of sorts. The problem is that in order to extract that nugget you have to dig through an enormous amount of waffle.

John Micklethwait, the New York bureau chief of The Economist, has written for the Los Angeles Times, and has appeared on National Public Radio. Winner of the Winscott Award for financial journalism, he lives in New York City.

Adrian Woolridge, the West Coast bureau chief of The Economist, has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New Republic. He lives in Los Angeles

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