How to Think on Your Feet and Speak With Confidence

Updated on May 7, 2020
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Sally is a business communications coach who gives workshops on how to keep your professional reputation squeaky-clean and drama-free.

Get advice for becoming a better impromptu speaker.
Get advice for becoming a better impromptu speaker. | Source

Master the Art of Impromptu Speaking

Do you ever feel anxious about carrying on a spontaneous conversation with someone? Check out these tips and tools for thinking on your feet.

Whether you realize it or not, almost every verbal exchange you have with other people involves impromptu speaking. You can’t write a script ahead of time for many of the everyday conversations you engage in with friends, family members, co-workers or strangers.

Sure, you can set some goals for what you want to communicate to the other person. You can even write out a list of the things that you want to address in your conversation with the other person and try to memorize them. But beyond that, if you are hoping to have a natural, two-way conversation with someone, you’re going to need to get comfortable with thinking on your feet and being able to respond ‘off the top of your head.’

Does answering unexpected questions make you want to bite your nails with nervousness?
Does answering unexpected questions make you want to bite your nails with nervousness?

Can You Think on Your Feet and Communicate Effectively?

How confident are you in your ability to think on your feet and communicate effectively in a few of these situations?

  • Answering questions in a job interview?
  • Phoning an old friend to say “Hi” and see how they are doing?
  • Carrying on a conversation with an acquaintance you’ve bumped into on the street?
  • Talking to people at family events and community gatherings?

If any of these situations makes you apprehensive, that’s OK. It’s normal to want to feel like we are in control and always have something witty and interesting to say. But here’s the thing: People who are sharp, witty, and always on the ball don’t memorize one-liners or practice scripted speeches with the hopes that one day they’ll have the perfect opportunity to deliver their speech. They’re good impromptu speakers because they know how to listen carefully, organize their thoughts quickly, and pay attention to body language.

In short, good impromptu speakers are always fully present and in the moment. And people are naturally drawn to those who give them their undivided attention and make them feel valued.

How to Give a Good Answer When You're on the Spot

People who are good at impromptu speaking aren’t necessarily gifted speakers. Rather, they rely on a few simple tips and techniques to help them come up with interesting, dynamic responses to questions on the fly.

Here are four steps for giving honest and engaging answers when you feel like you've been put on the spot.

1. Listen Carefully

The number one way to give a logical, thoughtful answer to a question is to pay attention to the question in the first place. Don’t offer your response until the other person has finished asking the question. Not only is it impolite to interrupt others, being alert and attentive when the other person is speaking and asking you a question can help you determine the best way to respond.

For example, if you agree with the speaker, you can refer back to and incorporate the other person’s perspective into your response. If you disagree, you can offer specific points and reasons for why you have a different opinion while staying on topic. One of the worst ways to respond to something you don’t agree with is to try to railroad the conversation and take it in an entirely different direction. Not only are you ignoring--and hence minimizing--the other person’s perspective, you risk coming across as evasive and shifty.

There's nothing worse than being called upon by your teacher to answer a question when you've let your mind wander off. Listening carefully and paying attention is one of the best ways to always be prepared to answer impromptu questions.
There's nothing worse than being called upon by your teacher to answer a question when you've let your mind wander off. Listening carefully and paying attention is one of the best ways to always be prepared to answer impromptu questions.

2. Pause

Did you know that according the neurolinguistic researchers, the average gap between the time one speaker finishes and the other one replies is only 200 milliseconds? And this gap in time is almost universal—it even exists between people using sign language. It seems that without conscious effort, humans can’t handle ‘silence’ in the middle of their conversations.

If people don’t pause between speaking t one another, is it any wonder we sometimes end up saying things we regret, stumble on our words, or give an answer to a question that makes no sense at all?

There are a number of reasons that pausing can help you become a better impromptu speaker. It allows you to come up with a thoughtful response, it keeps you from starting your response with an “um” or an “ah”. Pausing before you reply to a question can add tension and suspense, literally leaving your listener hanging on the edge of his seat. Pausing can also help add a sense of gravitas to your message if your subject matter is serious and somber.

Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.

— Napoleon Hill

3. Repeat the Question or Ask for Clarity

If pausing after you first hear the question doesn’t trigger a response in your mind, it may be because you didn’t quite understand the question. That’s why it’s a good idea to repeat the question aloud. This confirms to both you and your listener that you have heard the question. If the question doesn’t make sense to you, you can then ask for clarity from the other person. Some people might think that repeating a question will make them look stupid, but I believe the opposite is true. I believe that repeating a question or asking for clarity achieves a number of things:

It shows that you care about understanding the issue and you want to honor and thoughtfully address the speakers query or concern

It shows you are confident enough to seek clarity without feeling foolish—you are not afraid to ask for help, especially if it means facilitating communication and fostering a deeper connection with the other person or audience.

It gives the person who asked the question in the first place to be sure he has really asked the right question. If he hasn’t asked the right question or needs to amend it in some way, pausing to clarify the question will provide him with the opportunity to reframe or rephrase his question.

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.

— Voltaire
Being able to answer questions off the top of your head doesn't have to be a nerve-wracking experience. If you know a few basic steps for coming up with a thoughtful answer, being put on the spot can lead to new and innovative solutions.
Being able to answer questions off the top of your head doesn't have to be a nerve-wracking experience. If you know a few basic steps for coming up with a thoughtful answer, being put on the spot can lead to new and innovative solutions.

4. Give Your Answer

Now that you have a good understanding of the question, you’re ready to give your response. Stay on topic and avoid the urge to try to over-analyze the conversation. Keep your answer brief---no more than three main points. Once you’ve covered your main points, wrap up your response.

You may choose to ask a question of the other person at the end of your answer, especially if you want to keep the conversation going in a mutually friendly manner. Just make sure that the questions you as create a smooth transitions in the conversation. Try not to change the subject suddenly. You may come across as evasive.

When your conversational partner starts to answer your questions, be sure give him or her time to pause and respond. Don't try to hasten a response. Be open to repeating the question if needed or rephrasing it if it wasn't understood the first time.

Don’t forget to pay attention to your body language as you speak. What you say with your facial expressions, stance and hand gestures can either highlight or detract from your answer. Maintain good eye contact, smile warmly, and if your conversation ends with a handshake, make sure it is a firm and confident one!


  • Images:
  • Quotes:
  • Content and concepts: Toastmasters International

What makes you most anxious about answering questions in social settings or during job interviews?

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Sally Hayes


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