Anyone in any kind of leadership position needs to master the skill of adept thought and speech in stressful high-pressure circumstances. In my work as an executive leadership coach with clients that include top leaders around the world, it’s an area I’m asked about often.
Here are some tips and tactics to help you think on your feet. The secret is to be prepared: learn and practice a set of skills you can rely on in situations that put you under pressure.
Repeat what you just heard. One of the hardest parts of contributing to a conversation is answering a direct question, especially when you can’t honestly give the expected answer. Allow yourself to pause and think; don’t feel that you need to fill the space with words right away. A tentative or uncertain reply won’t help your case. To calm your nerves and buy yourself a little time, simply repeat the question that was asked. As an added benefit, you can double-check your understanding of the question.
Always be thoroughly prepared. Plenty of highly intelligent people aren’t good at speaking spontaneously, but with enough preparation you can still be brilliant. Learn every fact and figure, every prominent person in your field and their perspective, the background of the issue. A prepared mind is a smart mind.
Learn to organize your thoughts. Constantly ask yourself the following 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 being the smartest—sometimes it’s best to be the most organized and effective.
Ask for clarification. Asking for clarity will compel those who are speaking to be more specific. Don’t give cause for your query to be interpreted as a challenge, but keep it neutral: “When you say X, can you please clarify. . . .”
Project confidence. Adept thinking in the moment boils down to self-confidence. Speak in a strong voice, make lots of eye contact, and keep your tone and body language positive. Remind yourself how much you know about your job, your organization and your industry, and how many people you work with successfully.
Summarize and stop. Wrap up lengthy responses with a quick summary statement. After that, resist adding anything more. Be silent. Pause and allow people to fill the silent spaces. They’re absorbing the information you just presented, and speaking during that time can cause confusion.
Lead from within: When you have to think on your feet and you want to sound smart, make use of the tips to help alleviate the pressure.
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