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How to Think and Talk Confidently on Your Feet

Ever wonder why some people never seem to stumble or look like deer caught in the headlights when asked a question? I used to think that it was a natural ability, which was sometimes the case. But then I started training business executives for media interviews and realized that for many of us, the ability to think and talk confidently on our feet usually comes from preparation and practice.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of having key messages top of mind to help you say the right thing at the right time. Add a list of possible questions that you might face at work - with your responses thought out ahead of time - and you’re on your way to communicating like a pro.

Here are five steps for learning how to hold your own when asked a question:

  1. Identify upcoming events on your calendar. Think about any calls and meetings that you will be attending soon even if you don’t usually speak during them. At some point, you may be asked a question. Better to be prepared and look like you’re on top of things than to come across as not up to speed.

  2. Create a list of questions that could come up. Make a list of work-related questions that you could get during these calls and meetings as well as during possible encounters with your boss. Include not just the obvious questions but also the ones you hope won’t get asked. Again, better to be ready for them than not.

  3. Think through your responses. Start going through your questions and coming up with appropriate responses. The goal is to be able to speak as knowledgeably and articulately as you can about your work. Organizing your thoughts in advance should make it easier to adapt your responses to different audiences and circumstances.

  4. Answer your questions out loud. Say your answers out loud to yourself to see if they sound right to you. Are your responses appropriate and adequate for your audience and type of meeting, call or encounter? Are they too long or do they need more detail? And is the tone right?

  5. Know what to say when you don’t have the answer. While you’re not expected to have all the answers, especially in your first job, it is reasonable to expect that you will leave no stone unturned to get answers when you don’t have them. If you’re asked a question that you can’t answer, you can respond along the lines of “That’s a good question/I’m not 100 percent sure. But I’ll get on it as soon as I can and let you know.” The important thing is to show a sense of urgency and follow through as promised. (And if you really should have had the answer, then own up to it, get the answer asap and make sure that you don't drop this particular ball again.)

Jotting down possible questions and thinking through how you would answer them can help you think and talk on your feet at work. It’s also a good way to brush up on your communication skills while training yourself to anticipate situations and plan for them so that you can consistently put your best foot forward.

For more on how to succeed in your first job, please find my book, Starting Out Smart: The Unwritten Rules for Getting Ahead in Your First Job, on Amazon.

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