Whether it’s an unexpected question or a decision that needs to be made quickly, it’s easy to be caught off guard in the moment only to think of the perfect answer later. Thinking on your feet takes mental agility, and it’s possible to prepare for those moments when you need to think fast.
Here are five ways to get better at thinking on your feet:
1. Play Thinking Games
Being quick on your feet is something you can and should practice, says Beck Bamberger, founder BAM Communications. Bamberger’s team reserves a portion of their weekly meeting to stretch their skills.
“We throw out a meaty topical question and call on individuals to answer the prompt within 60 seconds,” she says.
A recent question was on the topic of Tiger Woods’ latest Masters win. Bamberger asked her team what brands like Nike should do now that a fallen icon has stepped back into the spotlight.
“Once you’ve had the experience of answering 30 or so of these tough and unpredictable questions, you’re far more in shape to handle with confidence any questions clients or audience members may throw your way,” says Bamberger.
Employees at Walker Sands Communications, a PR agency, practice thinking on their feet by hosting public speaking parties that use improv and creative writing games.
“We had people use vivid imagery to make a toast or explain a fictional vacation,” says Mike Santoro, president. “Everything culminated in a final round where groups of people paired off to pitch the group on their next big idea. They had a five-deck slide that they hadn’t seen before and had to work to describe a new business that was launching.”
Fun activities can teach good habits like listening, building on one another with “yes, and” methods, and truly working together, he says.
2. Request More Information
If you’ve been asked a question and don’t have an immediate response, get more information by asking questions. For example, “Tell me more about that” or “Tell me what you mean by XYZ,” says Kelley Heider, vice president of innovation at the PR agency SSPR.
“This will buy you a few seconds to have more time to think about it,” she says. “It may also provide the information you need to actually answer the question. This is especially helpful when you don’t really understand the question.”
3. Watch Press Conferences for Inspiration
Press conferences can be a good model for thinking on your feet, says Tim Reeves, former Pennsylvania gubernatorial press secretary and principal of the ad agency Allen & Gerritsen.
“There is no safety net; no one can come to your rescue and you don’t get do-overs,” he says. “That’s why it’s the best place to see examples of thinking fast on your feet.”
4. Be Guided By the Consequences
Sometimes the smartest approach is to take a step back and gather additional thought, data or recommendations, says Ajeet Singh, co-founder and executive chairman at the search software firm ThoughtSpot. He puts decisions into two buckets: “reversible” and “irreversible.”
“If a decision is easily reversible, one can make it on the spot and course correct later,” he says. “Some decisions are hard to reverse and high impact. New leaders shouldn’t feel pressured to prove themselves by making such decisions instantly.”
5. Come Back to Your Key Messages
You’ll never be able to predict every possible question, so stop trying, says Ryan Richert, executive director of global media at the PR agency Golin. “Many speakers spend their limited prep time trying to think of the worst questions that can be asked,” he says. “This is important, but not as important as focusing on your key messages.”
Prepare by knowing your takeaways and stories for each. “If so, you can conquer any tough question by acknowledging it, answering it briefly or explaining why you don’t have the answer, and then bridging to what you want to discuss with a powerful story,” says Richert.
For example, say, “That’s an interesting question, and it’s one I’ll have to think about further, but I’ll share my opinion on the broader topic of your question. And, let me tell you about a story that caused me to reach that opinion,” he says.
Your talking points are your security blanket, adds Reeves. “Not only are they the points you want to make; they are the places you want to go when you get an unexpected question,” he says. “In many instances, it’s relatively easy to pivot from their unexpected question to your priority answer. It’s all about being on the hunt for ways to bridge from their unexpected questions to your answer islands.”
While it’s important to be able to think on your feet, don’t make decisions based on the “tyranny of the instant,” says Peter Arvai, CEO of Prezi, online presentation tools.
“In a world where social media demands us to act quickly and often emotionally–it also leads us to frustration and polarization,” he says. “[It’s] driving us all to make poor decisions. It’s best to let reason guide.”
Be clear on your long-term strategy and goals. “Spend time thinking ahead about what you want and how you went to get there,” says Arvai. “With clarity of where you’re headed long term–and doing the hard work in advance–you can make the right decisions when you need to–quickly and easily.”