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How to think on your feet: 10 tips for a more confident you

a group of three people has a leader showing how to think on your feet

How good are you at thinking on your feet? 

Imagine someone walking into your office at 9 in the morning, asking you to present your latest project to a group of investors in less than an hour. This was a planned meeting, but you were so busy that you completely forgot about it. What do you do?

Do you have the confidence to walk into the meeting room with some last-minute notes and present your ideas without looking like a deer in the headlights?

Preparing and anticipating the unexpected is part of life for everyone. But you can’t have backup plans for every single thing that might go wrong. This is where improvisation comes into play: being able to adapt to a tricky situation and quickly recover from it.

Think of the comedian who manages to make an apathetic audience laugh by poking fun at their lack of humor. Or a psychologist who quickly reevaluates her approach when she suspects that her patient might be a victim of domestic abuse.

Getting good at making decisions on the fly takes patience and practice. You need to be able to assess the situation with a clear mind, and take action at the same time. 

Some are more naturally skilled at this than others, but everyone can improve their quick-thinking capabilities. With a little self-reflection and these ten simple tips, you can learn to think on your feet and deal with the unexpected.

Table of contents
What it means to ‘think on your feet’
Thinking on your feet exercises
Traits that help you think faster on your feet
Practice in different situations to upgrade your skills 

What it means to ‘think on your feet’

What does it mean to think quick on your feet?

To think quick on your feet means making good decisions and achieving things without having to consciously think about them too much.

Where does thinking on your feet come from?

As an idiom, to “think on one’s feet” came into use sometime around 1900, but people have been engaging audiences and improvising for a very long time. The Greeks gave public speeches in front of large audiences, often debating with rivals based on ideological/political differences. To win the argument and gain the audience’s favor, they’d often have to quickly come up with witty answers and clever remarks. Similar events often took place in the forums of ancient Rome.

The idiom is also connected to theater, comedy, and performances in general. When entertaining an audience, things don’t always go as planned. If you’re “thinking on your feet”, then you’re most likely in the spotlight and not sitting down (e.g., on stage, in a conference, in a meeting room).

Why is thinking on your feet important?

People with advanced improvisation skills can easily get out of tricky situations. They seem more confident and in control, even when they’re unexpectedly put on the spot. 

It’s super useful in business, but also just as much in your personal life. Learning how to think faster on your feet can come in handy during social interactions, by improving your communication and helping you avoid misunderstandings.

Thinking on your feet exercises

Here are ten exercises that can help you face unexpected and stress-inducing situations with a good deal more confidence. Following some (or all) of these tips will help you react creatively when you really need to.

1. Prepare

We just said that you can’t expect the unexpected, so how are you supposed to prepare for stressful situations before they even take place?

Well, you can’t always know how certain interactions are going to go, but you can always prepare by rehearsing some answers. If you’re preparing for an important interview and have been unemployed for a while, you can expect your interviewer to touch on the subject. If you’re going out on a date, you should be prepared to share some more details about your personal life.

You don’t need to go crazy and worry about every potential question. This brainstorming activity is less about the questions themselves, and more about preparing yourself psychologically for what is to come. Getting into the right mindset will help your subconscious mind make connections more easily, boosting your creativity.

2. Know your audience

The first thing you need to do is take a moment to think about your audience. Remember, an audience can also be just one person.

  • Who are you talking to? It’s hard to find the right things to say if you don’t know who you’re talking to. What do you know about these people? For example, are you looking to impress them, entertain them, maintain a relationship with them?
  • Who are you? You don’t have to dive too deep here. Based on the setting and environment, you might have to assume different roles throughout the day (e.g., friend, coworker, employee).
  • Where are you? Are you presenting in a small meeting room? Are you speaking in front of a large audience publicly? Are you engaged in one-on-one communication with a date in a cafe?
  • What do you want? Why are you communicating in the first place? What are you looking to gain from this interaction? What do they want in return? Is it something tangible, or not?
  • How do you feel? Being honest with your emotions and accepting your feelings as they come will allow you to make better decisions.

3. Keep calm under pressure 

Relaxing when under pressure certainly isn’t easy. But if you want to give your brain a chance to think things through and quickly come up with a solution, you need to remain calm.

If you find yourself losing control quickly, remember to:

  • Take a second to breathe. Inhale for three seconds, hold your breath for another four seconds, and then exhale.
  • Come up with a positive, affirming message; like “I’m here to enjoy myself.”
  • Clench muscles that others can’t see (e.g., biceps, thighs) for a few seconds and then release to relieve tension.

You can reduce the time it takes for your body to calm down by regularly practicing yoga and meditation. Aside from being able to make better decisions, maintaining your composure and staying relaxed also leads to a better mental state throughout the day.

4. Keep your ears open

Learning when to be silent is as important as learning when to speak. If you don’t actively listen to what other people are saying, you’re much more likely to misunderstand questions and requests. When you listen, you’re more focused on the moment and can handle tricky situations before they spiral out of control.

When engaged in conversation, make sure you’re:

  • Approachable by always facing your conversation partner. 
  • Paying attention to their body language. 
  • Reading between the lines as you interpret what’s being said. 

As you’re listening, take a moment to assess the situation and learn more about your audience. Why did they react this way? Is this a legitimate question? Are they perhaps testing you, or is it something else entirely?

5. Ask for the question to be repeated

What do you do when you’re asked a question that you don't know how to answer at first? Maybe it’s your boss inquiring about your team’s worrying productivity numbers. Or perhaps it’s your fiancé asking about that coworker who keeps calling you outside working hours. You don’t like the accusatory tone, and you’ve got so many things to say in your defense. 

Instead, you just freeze—nothing’s really coming out. You’re racing against time, and in situations like these, it’s better to do everything you can to avoid the question a while longer. As you think of a better way to approach the issue, simply have them repeat the question one more time.

Not only will this win you more time, but it will also tell you more about the other person as well. If they’re genuinely looking for information, they’ll rephrase the question. If they intended to make you uncomfortable, they might become more aggressive or even ask something completely different altogether.

As you learn more about their intentions, it’s easier to come up with a better answer.

6. Find other ways to stall the conversation

Having people repeat questions is a neat little trick, but it won’t always work. There are, of course, other ways to stall a conversation and win some more time. Depending on the situation, the following stall tactics may come in handy:

  • Ask them to clarify. Answering big general questions is a daunting task. Try to narrow down the focus by asking for clarification. Both of these would work with our example: Are we talking about last month or the month before? Does this number take into account the reduced resources available to us?
  • Repeat the question out loud. You can use this as an opportunity to rephrase the question and add a positive spin to it. If your boss is concerned about your team’s productivity you can follow up with: ‘the report is in and our productivity is down but didn’t the client say she loved our work?’
  • Ask for a definition. Making sense of a question filled with complicated terminology can be scary. If you’re not sure what’s being said, ask to have words and ideas clarified so that everyone is on the same page.

7. Stay truthful, focused, and relevant

A great answer to a difficult question is perfectly balanced; it’s truthful and focused. It’s neither too long nor too short.

If you remain focused and stick to one specific point, it’s easier to come up with a satisfactory answer without going on a tangent. If you say too little, you give your questioner a bit too much power to guide and control the conversation. If you say too much, you might come across as boring—worse; you might say something better left unsaid.

Whether you’re addressing an audience or engaging in a one-on-one conversation, you should respect the Cooperative Principle. This principle was defined by linguist Paul Grice as part of his pragmatic theory and is divided into the four maxims of conversation:

  • Maxim of quantity: Your contribution should be as informative as required. You shouldn’t say more than is necessary to get your point across.
  • Maxim of quality: You shouldn’t say something you believe is false. 
  • Maxim of relation: You should only try to contribute with information that’s relevant to the exchange.
  • Maxim of manner: Be clear, avoid obscurity of expression, and be as brief as possible.

8. Don’t be afraid of silence

We often associate silence with uncomfortable situations and awkwardness. But if you use silence to your advantage, you can show your audience that you’re focused and confident. 

(This is a tactic used by salespeople after making an offer; it stops them justifying what they’ve proposed, putting the responsibility to break the silence on the listener.)

Answering too quickly will make it seem like you’re unsure or nervous. Pause every now and then, and give your brain plenty of time to process and evaluate everything that’s being said.

9. It’s not just about what you say

What you say sure matters, but how you say things is even more important sometimes. Clear delivery will maintain engagement, giving you the confidence you need to think quick on your feet and keep going. These oration skills can come in handy in almost every situation:

  • Speak in a strong, confident voice – although not necessarily a loud one.
  • Pay attention to your audience’s reaction, and adjust your tone of voice accordingly.
  • Nail your delivery by alternating your pace. Pause after saying something important, and speed up when analyzing less important stuff.
  • Avoid ‘umms’, ‘ahhs’, and conversation fillers (e.g., ‘like’, ‘you know’).
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Avoid grammar mistakes and casual / colloquial language if it’s not appropriate.

10. Stories are your friends

Humans have been telling stories to each other for thousands of years. There’s just something about a good story that draws people in and makes everything you say so much more interesting.

Visual storytelling increases engagement and makes you more relatable. Raw information is ok, but it can quickly tire your audience. Spice your speeches up by weaving in personal stories whenever it feels appropriate. Try to illustrate your point with a lighthearted joke or some anecdotal material. You really don’t have to try too hard. This could be something as simple as relating a conversation that you had with someone.

Traits that help you think faster on your feet

So, in short – listen, focus, and try to adapt to your audience’s reaction. Use pauses for emphasis, and if you get stuck, don’t panic. Remain calm and stall the conversation by repeating tricky questions or throwing a lighthearted joke into the mix.

These tactics can come more naturally for some - especially those who score high on intuitive decision making and initiative. If you’re not so high on these traits (something you can discover in the Fingerprint for Success app) then don’t worry - with a little practice, you can orient yourself towards a quicker, more intuitive decision making style. 

You might find that you’re actually more inclined towards reflection & patience or requiring a period of time before deciding on action. You might also be more detail oriented, and tend to get a little obsessed with the smaller things rather than the big picture. This is fine, and can certainly prove useful in certain circumstances. But if you’re looking to think quicker on your feet you might want to identify where your skills lie, and try getting more comfortable with situations where not everything is set in stone. After repeated exposure, you might find that fast-paced situations aren’t as scary as you thought – it’s just that you need to navigate them differently. 

No one likes being put on the spot without warning. But learning how to think quick on your feet can help you get out of sticky situations. Make an effort to learn more about how you best deal with these scenarios. Take a deep breath, relax, and trust that you’ll do the right thing. 

Practice in different situations to upgrade your skills 

While the above tactics will help you act quickly in a sticky situation, you’ll also become more natural at dealing with such challenges by putting yourself out there. 

One of the best ways to boost your impromptu life skills is to try improvisational comedy. See if there’s an amateur improv group near you, and sign up - with the goal being to make up things as you go along, it’s the perfect testing ground for your abilities to think on your feet. 

You could also try talking to strangers more when you’re out and about - make conversation with baristas or grocery workers, for example. It’s simple enough, but after a few weeks of daily conversations you’ll find your mind is a little sharper – a little more ready to spark up ideas when you really need them.

Plus, you might be adept at quick thinking in situations where you can listen and speak, but not so much when you have to read and write. Think about how your learning and working styles differ to other people, and experiment with putting yourself under pressure in different ways, to really get the best out of yourself. 

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