9 Tips for Thinking on Your Feet When You're Put on the Spot and Have to Sound Smart
The thought of speaking up when you weren’t expecting to contribute to the conversation is terrifying. It’s one thing to prepare to lead a discussion in a team meeting or to plan what you’re going to say to your department at your monthly update gathering; it’s a whole other thing to think on your feet and offer a response in an impromptu setting. Consider it another form of problem-solving.
Unfortunately, even if you’re someone who thrives on advance preparation, the truth is, there’ll be plenty of times in your career when you don’t have a thought-out, pre-planned answer, when the situation doesn’t lend itself to your giving a rehearsed speech. Expert career coaches to the rescue!
Ahead, nine of them explain how to get skilled in responding to the natural flow of conversations—whether that’s in a meeting you assumed wouldn’t require your input, with your boss on a random Wednesday afternoon, or with the CEO who suddenly strikes up conversation about the project your manager assigned you just yesterday.
1. Focus on What’s Important
If you’re nervous [about speaking up in an impromptu setting], it probably means you’re overly focused on how other people are going to perceive you. Instead, focus on what’s being discussed and think about three questions: What do I not understand which could be better clarified? What question could I ask that would advance the discussion? What perspective or insight do I have that’s shareable? Don't worry about ‘looking smart’ or making some amazing point or comment. It’s a discussion, not a debate.
2. Repeat the Question
One of the hardest parts of contributing to a conversation or answering questions in meetings is feeling as though you are under pressure to produce an expected response. One way to overcome this feeling is to not jump into your feedback too quickly. If your response isn’t clear, it can come off as an incomplete thought, or it may fail to address the question. To calm your nerves and come up with a thoughtful answer, simply repeat the question that was asked. This will ensure that you completely understand what’s going on before you attempt to contribute to the conversation.
3. Call Upon Your Knowledge
People usually talk about the things that are of interest to them (professionally or personally), or information most relevant to the organization. Use your knowledge to generate questions that demonstrate your involvement in the conversation. Engaging others by asking questions puts them in a position to share more information, and it takes the stress and pressure off of you. For example, if one of your managers or leaders discusses the company mentoring program, ask her about her best or worst mentoring experiences. You can relay your enthusiasm or interest by restating highlights of what she shared.
4. Take a Deep Breath Before You Do Anything Else
If someone asks you a question that catches you off guard, pause, look thoughtful, and say, ‘That’s a really interesting question. Let me take a minute to think about it.’ This gives you a moment to take a deep breath and collect your thoughts before responding. You’ll be less likely to get flustered. It’s a strategy that works well in interviews, too, if you’re asked a question you don’t have the answer to.
5. Project Confidence
This all boils down to having confidence in yourself. If you know who you are and feel good about what you’re doing, are regularly and positively engaged in your work, have learned the industry and, in general, have strong interactions with your peers and managers, you should feel comfortable sharing your insights and opinions in any given situation.
6. Stop Being Afraid
Get over your fear of looking stupid. If you make a mistake and say something that isn’t immediately met with nods of agreement or approval, that’s OK. Follow your inner voice, and have your own thoughts. Asking a question is an easy way to assert yourself without risking too much if you’re especially nervous about adding to the conversation. But, if that’s the case, and your fear is making you mum, I recommend reading Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom, Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.
7. Take a Moment of Silence
Silence can be golden, so don’t be afraid to use it. If you’re unsure of how to answer a question, or are searching for the right words, it’s OK to pause for a bit before speaking. You can say, ‘Let me think,’ or ‘That’s a great question,’ while you piece your thoughts together in your mind. These phrases help buy you time until you’re ready to present the ideas swimming in your brain.
8. Provide Your Point of View
I find it fascinating that when we’re asked for our input on a given topic, we often freeze up, or we feel unqualified to speak. You hold back because you don’t think you have enough expertise. But, you don’t gain expertise by keeping your mouth shut. You gain it by putting your ideas out there, and following what sticks. One of the biggest revelations I’ve helped my students achieve, is understanding that, while you may not feel entitled to share an expert’s opinion, you are always entitled to share your point of view. When you acknowledge that you’re providing your point of view, it takes the pressure off of needing to know everything, and helps you feel at ease sharing your thoughts.
9. Avoid Going on the Defense
When we feel caught off guard, it can be easy to get defensive. If, during a meeting or spontaneous conversation, a colleague rattles off a litany of criticisms as to why your proposal won’t work, resist rejecting them by responding with ‘No, but...’ Instead, try the ‘Yes, and...’ strategy, a technique borrowed from improv comedy. By saying, ‘Yes, and... here’s how we overcome those challenges...’ you move the conversation forward. You inspire creative problem-solving, invite possibility, and create an atmosphere for constructive conversation.
Need a little help in your job search? Book one of these coaches for a one-on-one strategy session.
Stacey Gawronski is the Senior Editor/Writer of The Muse. She started writing short stories in the second grade and is immensely grateful to have the opportunity to write and edit professionally. Her work has appeared in YouBeauty, Refinery29, A Practical Wedding, Runner's World online, and The Billfold among other publications. She enjoys running and eating in equal measure and lives with her husband and dog in Brooklyn. All three of them are avid New York Mets fans. Say hello on @stacespeaks.More from this Author