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Thinking on Your Feet

10 July 2022
Effective Top Tens - Podcast
Quick, practical tips on a wide range of management and personal development themes.
When the pressure is on, and you get an unexpected and challenging question – how do you respond quickly and with confidence? Here’s how….

Have a positive mindset

this is true for almost every situation in life. If you're anxious or fearful or worried, it will show in both your behaviour and in your answer. Being positive will allow you to find solutions with more trust and with more confidence in yourself. So work hard at developing a positive mindset. learning strategies


This may show you in your best light

if you have to answer a question on the spot, it means you're dealing with the unknown, something you didn't know about in advance. It clearly puts you on the spot. And for most people in any audience, that's where you can be your most impressive. Anyone can put together a decent proposal with enough time and information, but to answer an unknown question on the spot and do it well, shows the skills of either great preparation and anticipation or a great ability to think on your feet, and/or a great and embedded knowledge of your subject. All three of those skills are highly valued and highly prized. So being able to think on your feet may well be the decisive part of any proposal or interview. It could be the clincher. So thinking on your feet can be a really tie-breaking asset.



anticipate those unexpected questions and put yourself in your audience's shoes.Given your proposal or the interview you're going through, what could they ask and what could they ask that you would find difficult to answer, then prepare your answers. And if you're not particularly good at this at asking yourself challenging questions, then find a friend or a colleague who will do it for you.


The clue is in the question

this means two things. Firstly, the question indicates your answer. It gives you all you need for your answer. It tells you what you're expected to be talking about. If it says, if the question is about fleek flogs, then you've got to answer in terms of fleek flogs.

It's in the question. Now at this point, many will think “goodness” and start to panic, which won’t help.  So the tip is stay focused on the question. That's where your best answer will come from. Not from wandering down unhelpful self-talk routes.

Secondly, the ball, the question, is now firmly in your court. I'm going to use a tennis analogy here. Imagine you're playing tennis, the person asking the question is Roger Federer.. You are Rafa Nadal.  Federer serves you the ball, which is then in Nadal’s court, to play with. So question is now in your court,it's yours to play. So this is what questions are for - for you to return with the best answer you can give.  So you have far more control than you think once the question has been asked it's now in your court to answer.


Silence has different timescales

silence has different timescales and feelings for the questioner and for the person who's responding. When asked a question, some people are reluctant to pause and think through their answer. This is partly because they think the pause shows uncertainty and lack of knowledge, and partly because they fear the silence.  But both of these views are, in my opinion, misguided, firstly, taking time to think about your answer shows you are a thinker, not someone who has an answer that you have learned off pat, robotically. So, taking time to think maybe to your credit rather than to your disadvantage.

Secondly, let's imagine you take four seconds to think. Well, four seconds thinking time may seem like an age to you, the thinker, but doesn't seem to be the same to those listening. The time you take to think as the responder, you see very differently, as much more extensive than those who've asked the question.


Use the three-card trick

have this simple, simple three step approach in mind in answering the question. Firstly, give your opinion - after all, that's what they want by asking the question, give your opinion. Step two. And this is perhaps the crucial one. Specify the criterion you are using to frame your answer. And step three, give an example or an illustration. Let me give you an example. I used to live in Chester and if somebody said, what do you think of Chester? Here's my three card trick answer.

I think Chester is a great city. There's my opinion. In terms of it's historical significance - and that's my criterion. So I'm answering the question is Chester a good city with reference to its historical presentation. So I now give the third step, which is some examples. For example, it has a medieval cathedral. It has a Roman amphitheatre. It has 18th century rows where two sets of shops are stacked one one another..


Buy yourself some thinking time

here are three examples. There may be more, but they can only be used sparingly, only once in any presentation or interview. So here are my three.  Firstly, repeat the question.. And make sure you repeat it. Don't ask them to repeat it, asking them to repeat it sounds like you are not a good listener or lacking in confidence, but you repeating it shows you have heard it correctly and they won't mind it being played back to them just for clarity. The second one is to clarify the question, check for any ambiguities or uncertainties in the question, check for the intent behind the question; probe the question.  This can buy you thinking time. And thirdly, dissect the question, break it down into its main elements. If it's a long question or a complex question that helps you by being able to chunk it down into its component parts. And at the same time, be thinking what the answer might be.


Jot down your thoughts

perhaps as a number of points, it may even help as the question is being asked to write down the question itself and then immediately under it, the numbers one, two and three, as if you're going to make three points, which you are - because doing this, writing down the question and then numbering, which creates an internal expectation in your mind to get ready for a structured approach. So having three points to make will make you sound more structured and logical, and less random with your comments.


Convert spaghetti into sausages

many people, especially creative thinkers, have internal thinking that is structured, like spaghetti, lots of different and disconnected strands of thought all running off in different and unconnected ways and directions. So there's a lot going on in there, but it's loosely organised if at all, it's spaghetti. Yet when we have to answer a question, then to make sense of that spaghetti, it has to come out verbally in a linear way, like sausages, because that's how language works. One word after the other. Following a linear structure and pathway. And some people find it really difficult to convert spaghetti into sausages. That's why writing the question down followed by numbering 1, 2, 3 can help - it immediately gets the mind ready to switch from spaghetti to sausage.  So in general, if you have a spaghetti thinking brain, you need to organise what you’re about to say in a linear way before you start to speak. In other words, think sausages.


Use 1 of 4 ways to answer if you don’t know

finally, it's quite possible that when you've been asked the question, you simply don't know the answer and there are four things you can do – so have all four of these ready.

First one is to say, you don't know and leave it at that. The second one is to say you don’t know, but offer to find out the answer. The third one (if you're in an audience setting), ask if anyone else present knows the answer; and fourthly guess, or offer an estimate, but it's crucial that you say it's a guess or an estimate.

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