Think on your feet...don't put them in your mouth!
By: Kevin Richter
What do the
following things have it common?
- Going to a job interview
- Developing rapport with a potential business contact
- Being pulled over by a police officer
- Having to explain to your spouse that you dropped 500 bucks at the craps table
Here's a hint: refer to the title of this article! Every day of every week of every month of every year we are faced with situations where we are challenged to quickly organize our thoughts and then deliver those thoughts in a clear and concise manner. It's not always an easy thing to do, and virtually everyone can relate to putting a foot in the mouth at one time or another.
Some people certainly seem to be more adept at thinking on their feet, and I've even heard people classify themselves as having "foot-in-mouth" syndrome. The good news is that it doesn't have to be something you're born with. You can develop the skill and learn to speak eloquently when put on the spot. As with any skill, it takes practice, practice, and more practice.
So you may be wondering, "How in the world do I practice thinking on my feet?" The best way to practice is just to do it. Pay close attention to your interactions with others, and keep a few things in mind:
- Give yourself time to think. Many
times people feel like they have to answer a question right after it has
been asked. Don't do that to yourself! Give yourself a few seconds to
collect your thoughts. It is amazing how fast your mind works, and how far
those few seconds will go to make you sound like an expert on the subject.
It may seem like a lot of time when you're pausing, but it always seems
longer than it really is.
- Be concise. Be very cognizant of time,
and make sure you don't ramble. Don't repeat points you've already made,
and try not to include more than a couple points. Try a general guideline
of 1-2 minutes for your response. This may vary based on the situation
you're in, but it's a good rule of thumb.
- Organize your thoughts before you speak. Treat your response like a miniature speech. State your premise, give a point or two to back it up or provide more detail, and conclude by tying back to your premise. That may sound like overkill for a simple response in a job interview, for example, but give it a try. You may be surprised by the results.
- Don't be afraid to tell someone you'll get back to them. If you don't know the answer to something, don't make it up. I used to think this was obvious until I was being interviewed for a position. I was asked the question, "What would you do if someone asked you a question and you didn't know the answer." To me this seemed like a strange question, but I replied, "I'd tell them that I don't know, but that I would find out and get back to them as soon as possible". I was hired, and later I was told that about 25 percent of the applicants said they would make something up! Whatever you do, don't be in the 25 percent. It is perfectly all right to say you don't know.
You don't have to wait for your next
interaction to start practicing. Have someone ask you a question or give
you a topic and try the above approach. Your local Toastmasters club
includes this exercise as part of every meeting since it is such a
valuable educational tool. Thinking on your feet is a powerful and
respected skill, and many people don't realize that it is something that
can be developed with practice. If you put some time and energy into
developing the skill, you may still occasionally put your foot in your
mouth, but you'll probably find that it is easier to extract!|
Kevin Richter is an IT Manager for Robert Half International, Inc., and the Toastmasters Area Governor for the Tracy, Manteca, and Stockton areas. He can be reached through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (925) 598-5535.
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