Performing under pressure: how to think on your feet

Even the most accomplished performer can flounder when put on the spot. But there are ways of training yourself to stay calm and focused when the pressure's on.

by Rebecca Alexander
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

We have all been there; suddenly faced by an unexpected question from boss or client and uttering a few stumbling, disjointed and limp words in reply, instead of the slick killer response we know we are capable of. Then a more fluent colleague steps in to answer the question, leaving us frustrated and embarrassed by our own failure to think on our feet.

Or there's the classic 'elevator pitch' moment (see box, page 56) where the big cheese gets into the lift and you have mere seconds to break the ice and sell yourself. All too often, the words we wish we had said only pop into our heads once the opportunity has passed and the lift doors have closed on le grand fromage.

The truth is that thinking on your feet in such sudden high-pressure circumstances is a vital business skill, but it's also one of the more difficult to master. It comes naturally to only a few - the rest of us have to learn the hard way. But if you want to avoid career-quenching brain freezes when under the spotlight, it's worth making the effort to prime your inner rapid-response unit.

Why does brain freeze happen? Well it's hardly news that when we're feeling tense or ambushed, our ability to think creatively can suffer. Our instinctive response to unanticipated threats is a panicked and primeval fight-or-flight response that, handy though it may have been when facing large predators, doesn't do much for our powers of lucid speech.

So try to remain calm and focused, says Kate Firth, a communication and personal impact coach who works with business leaders and senior politicians to improve their delivery. 'It's about using your logical mind, but it's also about using your body. A lot of people spend time on content and what they want to say, but wonder why they find it difficult when they're actually in the room.' And you can fool your body into short-circuiting your panic response by deliberately slowing down your breathing and sitting or standing squarely. 'It's much harder to be stressed when you're breathing as if you're in a normal situation,' says Firth. 'When your breath is locked down, your thinking goes.' It sounds simple, but it works.

James Beaumont, CEO of water-testing business DelAgua and a former professional racquets champion, agrees. 'Don't panic and don't get drawn into making statements or assertions that you can't support, in an effort to cover up.' If you're making a deal, excessive pressure from the other side can suggest that it is trying to get one over on you, he warns. So resist. 'You can always say something like: "I'd like to consider the tax position on that,"' he says. 'I've heard that one a few times.'

Next, think strategy. 'Ask yourself, what am I trying to achieve in this meeting?' says Firth. 'Colleagues say: "I just want people to know something" but you need a verb in there, such as: "I need to persuade people of x, or clarify y." If you nail that verb before you go into a difficult situation, your brain throws out everything else you don't need - it helps you to prepare for a situation where you know you might be put on the spot.'

Having worked out your desired outcome, it's time to make like a boy scout and be prepared, says Beaumont. 'The key to negotiation - and any meeting you have a specific goal for is a negotiation - is preparation.' That includes putting yourself in the shoes of others - what do they want to know, what questions might they ask? 'If you do your homework you are much less likely to be faced with a question that you don't expect or can't answer,' he says.

So, you're calm and focused, you know your objectives and you're impeccably well prepared. Now, what do you say when it's your turn in the spotlight?

Natural quick thinkers know the value of a few simple techniques to win valuable seconds without appearing to be indecisive. One is to ask the questioner to repeat or clarify a question. Not only does it buy time, the question will often be clearer the second time around. Failing that, repeat the question back to the questioner. Again it's a way to create thinking space, but it's also a chance to rephrase the question, perhaps to simplify it, or to neutralise any hostility if you feel you're under interrogation.

Once you're clear on the question, consider if you have an answer ready. If not, don't be afraid to say so, says Beaumont. 'Honesty is the best policy. If you need more time to answer, say so, and if you don't know something, admit it.' Such frankness may seem to risk appearing unreliable or even incompetent, but can actually improve your relationship with the other party. 'You may not see the benefit immediately, but people will remember that you were honest and have integrity. In the long run that's the best result,' says Beaumont.

Jeremy Kourdi, executive coach and author of Think on Your Feet (Cyan Books/Marshall Cavendish), agrees: 'Asking: "Can I take a moment to think about this?" is a flattering response as it shows you think the other person's question is important.' Similarly, owning up to gaps in your knowledge is far preferable to busking it. 'The alternative is to make something up and gabble to a potentially hostile audience, who will then pick holes in what you've just said.'

Now you're ready to give your actual response. A key - if underemployed technique - is that of speaking less and saying more. 'If it's their first board meeting and people are asked: "What's your take on this?" they do tend to ramble,' says Stephen Schneider, managing director of executive coaching and boardroom development company CPS. 'That might have been fine when you were a senior manager, but people don't want that on a board.' Instead, use a structure such as the BID grid (see box, page 56) to lend your answers brevity and impact. Other popular frameworks are PEP (Point-Example-Point) and PREP (Position-Reason-Example-Position). Whichever you choose, be sure to practise.

And, when offering your thoughts, don't shy away from asking more questions, says Kourdi. 'If I'm asked my opinion, I would give it, but I would also include a question such as "Is money an issue?", "What resources do we have?", "What's your ideal outcome?"' Questions like these are good for showing you're engaged and for deepening your understanding and they are also more likely to lead to a better conclusion.

When it comes to the art of answering - or should that be not answering? - a question, it pays to scrutinise the techniques employed by politicians, says Sander I Marcus, a clinical psychologist at the Illinois Institute for Technology at Chicago University. 'If you watch politicians, they don't answer the question they've been asked, they answer the question they would like to have been asked,' he says. But use this trick sparingly - it's easy to appear evasive and insincere.

A safer variation is to broaden a question out. Don't get sucked into irrelevant and treacherous details. 'One executive I know was asked what he would do if his mother was on his workforce and doing a terrible job,' says Marcus. 'He replied with a brief statement about his general approach, saying: "My philosophy is to encourage all employees to perform at their best and we have structures in place to help any employee who's struggling." It answered the broader question, while avoiding any potentially embarrassing comments over the details. He also managed to use the first part of his answer to make a point about his overall management style.'

Don't forget the importance of body language, and hand gestures in particular. According to Firth: 'When we use gestures in a different way, our language starts to change. If our palms are facing up, we're more relational and come across as more approachable. When our palms are down, we appear more serious, more on-message and focused on the task in hand. Bill Clinton is good at doing both, which is why he's so charismatic - he can move from relationship-building and small talk into getting his message across. Ask yourself, is this a moment when I need to bring people in, in which case it's palms-up, or one where I need to get my point across and be seen as serious, in which case it's palms down,' says Firth.

Occasionally, despite your best efforts, a questioner or audience will remain hostile. Try to calm things down by asking why they are so concerned and showing consideration for their position, says Kourdi. And prepare yourself by identifying possible hostile questions in advance. 'This can be scary, but you must do it,' says Firth. 'Or ask somebody else if you can't put yourself in the other person's shoes.' If questioners persist with a line that you consider irrelevant, say you'll discuss it with them one-to-one later. The last thing you want is to get sucked into a fight and lose credibility with those who simply want to get on with the matter in hand.

There's no denying that thinking on your feet involves making a lot of snap judgements, but don't let your eagerness to shine lead you into murky territory. 'In an urgent situation, your morals can be compromised,' says Kourdi. 'Ask yourself, am I doing the right thing? Could I defend this decision in the cold light of day?' Don't assume that something is OK just because everyone else seems to be in agreement.

And, finally, it's worth reiterating one vital point - preparation really is the key. Or as Laurie Mayer, the former BBC news presenter and Sky News anchor, now a mentor and media trainer with In Focus Media, puts it: 'The situation where one has to think quickly on one's feet should really never arise. In my experience, there are rarely more than half a dozen really crucial issues confronting an individual or organisation at any one time. It's not rocket science to identify them and hone a decent response. At any senior level, that's what you're paid for.'

Fortunately, most of us don't have to spend 24/7 thinking on our feet. But when the occasion arises, take a deep breath, consider the structure of your answer, make your point clearly, and then finish. And remember, you wouldn't be in the room in the first place if your opinion wasn't considered important.


- Do your homework - minimise the risk of being blindsided in an important meeting by thinking in advance about the questions you are likely to be asked.

- Buy time - win vital thinking space by asking for the question to be repeated, or repeating it back to the questioner as the start of your answer.

- Don't make statements you can't back up - you might get away with it the first time, but inaccuracies and falsehoods will catch you up eventually.

- Ask questions back - is money an issue? What's the timescale? What's your ideal outcome? It can help to clarify your response.

- Be honest - if you don't know something, admit it or ask for more time to answer and move on.

- Don't panic - breathe slowly and deeply and stand up straight. Speak steadily and when you've made your point, stop talking.


Stephen Schneider, managing director of executive coaching and boardroom development company CPS and co-author of The Board Game, recommends using the BID (Background-Issue-Decision) framework for fast-moving discussions. 'Even if it's a topic for which you're unprepared, the framework helps you move forward - the words almost fall into place,' says Schneider.

First, summarise the situation, with phrases such as 'It's important because ...' This provides the Background or headline.

Next, what is the Issue? What's at stake if you do or don't take a certain course of action? Schneider recommends putting forward a negative scenario, such as 'if we do nothing, we risk losing all our customers.'

By now you've got people following you because they sense the rhythm. So you move to the Decision: 'And the best way of dealing with this is ...' You can give more than one option. Once you've finished the BID, close with the benefits of what you've just suggested.

With BID, says Schneider, 'You'll be in control of the situation.'


Ah, the elevator pitch, or 'hallway talk': those occasions where you have just seconds to make a good impression on someone important. Here's what to do, says Sander Marcus, a clinical psychologist who's given presentations on the subject. 'First, say something brief that generates interest. Look at how salespeople make the distinction between a product's features and benefits. Similarly, you need to think beyond your name and job title (your features) and look to the bottom line (the benefits) of what you do. For example: "I help companies expand their market share/help their people work better together."

'Next, change the topic and ask about them. If your ploy has worked, they'll say: "Hang on, what you do sounds interesting, tell me more." If not, they're still likely to respond to your question and be interested in you.'

Marcus admits this doesn't come naturally to many. 'Most people are not schmoozers.' So practise your pitch, whether it's about yourself or your business idea. Find a line that sounds natural and non-gimmicky to you and have it ready to go. Good luck.

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