Thinking on Your Feet

Secrets for thinking and speaking effectively when you’re under pressure.

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #53

Thinking on Your Feet

Recently I received this email from an orthopedic resident in Australia.

I was wondering if you could help me with a growing problem. I have lost a great deal of confidence in my public speaking and find my mind goes blank when I am put on the spot by senior colleagues in academic meetings. I manage OK with organized speaking and giving presentations but flounder and sound unconvincing when giving answers to impromptu technical questions. This is really destroying my credibility.  My problem is talking with confidence under pressure!!! Do you have any helpful tips for this kind of situation?

Thanks for your question. First, you should know you’re not alone. No one enjoys being put on the spot or having to answer unexpected or difficult questions. It’s stressful! But there’s good news. It’s possible to learn how to think on your feet and speak clearly, concisely, and confidently. It’s a matter of practicing a few skills and tactics that I’ll talk about in today’s episode.

Learn How to Relax Under Pressure

First, it’s important to know how to relax when you are under pressure. I suggest listening to one of my previous episodes on proper breathing and the two episodes on handling nervousness (episode 22 and 23). In this case, it’s critical to slow down your breathing and to get rid of your inner critical voice.

Even if you struggle with abdominal breathing, just deepening and lengthening your breath stimulates the relaxation response. As a physician, it’s likely you already know that lowers the levels of hormone neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine) which creates a feeling of calm. In fact, many of the things that happen when we’re stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease when we breathe slowly and deeply.

To quiet the “mind chatter,” you can focus on your breath, or perhaps use meditation techniques. Another longer term idea might be to try yoga, which research has shown helps people with breathing, relaxation, and the ability to focus.

It’s a good idea for you to get in the habit of repeating the questions. Repeating the question gives you a bit more time to think about your response.

Listen and Pause

Of course, the ability to focus on the questioner and really listen without distraction is critical to the success of your answer-- especially for technical people. You need to listen carefully so that you fully understand the question. It helps to look directly at the questioner and if necessary, ask him or her to repeat or clarify the question. Often the second time the question is more concise and much clearer.

In addition, it’s a good idea for you to get in the habit of repeating the questions. That helps because at times, you’ll want to slightly rephrase the question. Maybe to make it less aggressive, more narrow, or even broader in focus. Especially when you are feeling pressure, repeating the question gives you a bit more time to think about your response.

Next, always pause before you respond. As long as you don’t have a look of panic on your face, you’ll look thoughtful, careful and respectful. So, pause, even if you know the answer and especially if you feel attacked.   Blurting out a response without thinking it through just makes you look insecure and anxious. A thoughtful pause reminds you to slow down and collect yourself and your thoughts.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.