How to Think Fast on Your Feet: Eight Steps to an Impressive Off-the-Cuff Reply

3 min read • Jun 28, 2013 • Guest Post

“No pressure. No Diamond.” —Thomas Carlyle

Few of us enjoy being put on the spot; however, the ability to speak with clarity and confidence under pressure pays big dividends. Not only does it convey your composure and credibility, it also helps ensure your ideas are heard and acted upon. Over time, these impromptu fast-on-your-feet responses form critical impressions that can help get you noticed, remembered, and promoted. Here are eight quick steps to optimize your next off-the-cuff reply.

1. Relax. Regardless of the situation, when a ‘curve ball’ comes your way take a deep breath and silently affirm yourself by thinking, “I can do this.” “I’m calm, confident, and in control.” “I’m the expert on this subject.” This positive attitude not only dispels self-doubt and anxiety, it aids clear thinking and relaxes the body and the mind.

2. Listen. Focus intently on the other person.  Look at him or her directly in the eyes. In addition to their words, pay attention to their tone of voice and body language. Fully understanding the question and reading between the lines will help you formulate a more targeted meaningful reply.

3. Repeat the question, if appropriate. Especially in a large meeting or public setting, restate the question loudly enough for everyone to hear. This gives the questioner the opportunity to clarify the question in case you misunderstood it. In the process, you buy more time to think and formulate your answer.

4. Ask a clarifying question. If the person presents you with a question or topic that you deem too broad or vague, feel free to narrow the focus. Ask them a clarifying question before you reply. For example, “Pat, when you say you have ‘concerns’ about the project, which particular aspects are you referring to?”
5. Pause and think. Avoid the temptation to blurt out an answer too quickly–even though you may have the perfect reply. This often results in speaking too fast and saying too much. Employ a well-timed two-second pause to collect and organize your thoughts. This signals your brain to slow down and shows your listener you’re calm and in control.

6. Use an organized structure. Using a mental framework sets you up for success. Believe it or not, when you give your brain a template, it fills in the blanks as you answer the question. You can trigger this phenomenon by numbering your points aloud as you begin your reply. For example, “Thank you for the question, Bob, and I understand your concerns. Yes, migrating to a new platform does involve change; however, there are three critical elements that remain unchanged: First, your system uptime remains constant with no interruptions. (If necessary, you may add a sentence or two of explanation).  Second, your mission-critical data remains safe and accessible…And third, your high quality of customer service remains stable.” Try this technique for yourself–it’s as easy as one-two-three!
7. Look and sound confident. Maintain good eye contact with the questioner and other listeners. Whether sitting or standing, be tall and exude good posture. Use relaxed natural gestures to punctuate your points. And be sure to keep your facial expressions neutral to positive–avoid furrowing your brow or looking pensive which can sometimes mistakenly happen when we’re concentrating, anxious or highly focused.   And speak with a well-projected confident tone of voice.
8. Summarize. In the event your answer turns into a conversation and goes longer than a minute or two, be sure to recap the main points before you conclude your reply. In the above example, you might say, “So Bob, rest assured, the migration will not affect any critical elements–your uptime, data and customer service remain safe and stable.”

By practicing these proven simple steps, you will come across as a confident, credible, and trustworthy expert who knows how to think fast on your feet and deliver an impressive off-the-cuff reply every time.

Lendio-Darlene-PriceDarlene Price is President and Founder of Well Said, Inc., a training and consulting firm specializing in high-impact presentations and effective communication.   As a 20-year veteran of the speech communication training field, Darlene has personally coached over 5,000 business professionals on the art of effective presentations and interpersonal communication. She has presented to audiences across six continents and coached the chief officers and senior leaders in more than half of the Fortune 100 companies. In addition, her work as a corporate spokesperson has earned her seventeen industry honors including one Emmy Award and nine Telly Awards


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