Episode 53: April 14, 2011
by Lisa B. Marshall
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.
It also lets you choose the best organization structure. I’ve noticed stress seems to make people answer either too briefly or ramble on. When responding to an impromptu question, the idea is to structure your response for clarity, brevity, and impact. By learning a few impromptu response structures, your answers will always sound organized and confident. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to review all the possibilities, so I’ll very quickly cover three common structures.
Impromptu Response Structures
The first one is called PREP: Position, reason, example, position (PREP). In this model, first you state your position on the topic, and then you state your reason for taking that position. Next, you provide an example or story that supports your reason. Finally, you summarize by restating your position.
The second structure is called PEP: Point, Example, Point (PEP). It’s easier than the first one and can be used to answer a wider variety of questions. In this one you start by briefly making a point or stating a key idea or objective. Then you give an example or story that proves your point. Then you wrap up by restating the main idea, or your main point. When you are short on time, this is the way to go.
The final structure calls for you to quickly think of a way to divide up your response. I call this one divide and conquer. There are a few classic two and three part divisions that you’ll want to memorize such as: past, present, future; problem, solution; cost, benefit; us, them; ideal, real; low, medium, high. Of course, there are many of these, so try to practice the ones that are common to your field. These are easy, you just pick an appropriate division and then include a little bit for each section.
I think the best way to learn how to organize on the fly and respond with confidence is to practice. I always tell my clients to start with easy questions such as, “Where do you like to vacation?”
So if I were to use the PEP structure, I might say something like this.
I like to relax and enjoy warm, sunny, tropical beaches for my vacations. For example, I’ll be heading to an all-inclusive resort in Panama this year. We’ll be able to scuba dive, swim, kayak and just chill on the beach and my mother-in-law, who happens to live only 25 minutes from the resort, will takes care of my girls.
However, if I were to use the divide and conquer structure, I might say something like this.
Before I had my twin daughters I spent vacations in warm, tropical beaches like Belize and Grand Caymen. However, for the past five years my only vacation was a few short hours of quiet when someone else was watching my girls. However, in a few short weeks, we’ll be vacationing in Panama relaxing by the ocean and the second largest man-made pool in the world. I can’t wait!
If you practice the all of these techniques when the questions are easy and you’re not under pressure, you can learn the structures quickly. Then, when you are put on the spot, you can easily relax, listen, organize, and respond.
Whether you are attending a meeting, interviewing for a job, presenting a proposal, selling an idea, or handling a question and answer session, being able to talk clearly and concisely talk about your work -- at a moment’s notice -- is a critical professional skill.
This is Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.
There’s bonus material this week. I created an audio clip of me answering the question, using the organizing structures I talked about in this episode. Find the link in the resources section below.
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If you have a question, send email to email@example.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.
Short video for learning slow deep breathing
Article on The Heath on Benefits of Yoga
Lisa delivering a live presentation on Impromptu Communication
Sticky Q&A Situations: Ramblers, Stage hogs, and Curmugeons (Lisa Live in NYC)
Do You Dread the Q&A (Lisa Live in NYC)