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Thinking on your feet during public speaking

Written by: Luan de Burgh
Published on: 10 Jul 2017

I recently spoke at a networking event on the most effective ways to develop meaningful business relationships and was asked a completely unexpected and somewhat unrelated question. I’d not had it before and needed to deliver a response that satisfied the questioner while at the same time allowing me to retain credibility. In other words, I had to think on my feet.

When speaking, there is always that lurking fear that someone else will know more than us, will be slightly more up on the brief or is simply trying to score a point. When we put ourselves up in front of others as an expert on a topic we allow ourselves to be vulnerable (an admirable quality). Alongside that vulnerability, we need to demonstrate conviction and competence especially when on the spot otherwise our own fears will be compounded and our audience will lose confidence in us.

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Thinking on our feet requires us to be, above all, relaxed. If we are in a state of heightened anxiety, it is nearly impossible for us to be open enough to accept a question, take a moment to think and come up with a decent response. Everyone who reads this article can think on their feet but a lack of openness and relaxation can hinder that.

Another way of looking at thinking on your feet is improvising – creating something spontaneously without preparation. The core principle of improvisation is known as ‘yes, and…’ thinking. This is the accepting of what someone says and the subsequent expansion of that thought and it applies not just to improvised theatre and music but also to corporate presentations. No professional improviser goes on stage in a state of closed off anxiety unwilling to accept what anyone else offers, so why do presenters think the same rules don’t apply?

Instead of seeing questions as a threat, try thinking of them as a way to develop the narrative. Be receptive to the thoughts of others; don’t be immediately judgemental and block, but rather listen, acknowledge (the ‘yes’) and then be open enough to develop the theme (the ‘and’) and you will, despite the mild terror of being so open and receptive, find that your cognitive process will not let you down.

It’s rather like jazz, you need to know what you are doing to be able to completely relax and trust your ability. Kurt Elling didn’t just wake up one morning and say to himself, ‘right, today I’m going to be a jazz improviser.’ No, he developed the skill by practising regularly to develop enough confidence to relax and trust his talent.

It is the same in business – practise your craft to the point where you feel relaxed enough to let those questions in, accept them and improvise from a position of being a credible knowledgeable expert. You will never get exactly the same situation and question twice so you cannot prepare for everything, but you can prepare your mind to be relaxed enough to deal with whatever comes its way and that comes from practising being open.

You will want to know the question of course (Anton Chekhov’s maxim on not bringing cannons on stage if you don’t intend to fire them being so true) – it was related to an image I use of Emperor Penguins; the questioner indicated that they only socialise out of necessity to keep warm and so how was that related to networking? I was not expecting it, it came in the middle of an unrelated (to penguins) discussion and I had to justify my choice. I took the word ‘necessity’ (‘yes’) and linked that to our needing to work with others to develop business (‘and’). Hardly the stuff of legend, but the audience liked it.

Thinking on your feet – it keeps you on your toes!

Luan de Burgh of the de Burgh Group is a professional public speaker and presentation coach. More of his articles can be read here.