How many times have you been asked the following questions in your work life?

“Why Should We Hire You Over Every Other Client?”

“Where Do You Want To See Your Company 10 Years From Now?”

“Why Didn’t X Company Accept Our Offer?

It’s a constant barrage of questions. Some of them could be a casual “How’s it going?.” But other times, they could be something that makes us sweaty, jittery or panicky.

Sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where we have to think on our feet without anticipation and that is often the case with highly sophisticated and top-of-the-line businesses – being able to improvise in order to answer questions that are both unexpected and difficult.

People usually ask unprecedented questions for the sake of acquiring information, but other times, they want to get a feel of your attitude towards a certain topic or situation to see how calm, confident and dependable you can be.

Apart from being asked questions, there are also times when we are asked to contribute our thoughts and views during an important conversation. It’s one thing to prepare ourselves for what we are about to say and share with our teammates at a monthly gathering, but it’s a whole other ballgame to be able to think on our feet in unexpected circumstances and that’s usually terrifying.

But that’s the usual nature of operating a high-profile company – learning to deal with out-of-the-blue dangers. Besides, you can think of these situations as another aspect of problem-solving.

In reality, it doesn’t matter how much-advanced preparation you do, there will come a time when you don’t have the right answer or solution to unforeseen questions or when you’re unprepared to lead a conversation at a conference.

But the important thing is to overcome this hurdle and turn it into a skill. That way, you’ll be more comfortable in any event, be it attending a meeting, selling an idea, presenting a proposal, or answering questions after a presentation.

And once you master it, every one of your clever responses will instill immediate confidence in whatever you have to say.

Therefore, confidence is the primary element to employ in getting you to think on your feet. Be sure that you know what you’re talking about and are well-informed when you present information, provide suggestions or give an opinion.

Don’t think that you have to know everything when you don’t. But as long as you are confident in your knowledge of the subject, you can deliver your response without panicking, even when you weren’t scheduled for this.

Now let’s look at some of the most effective tactics you can collect yourself in situations that you were put in on such short notices.


There is no substitute for preparation, even when it comes to events that you never knew you were going to be a part of.

That’s why it’s always a good idea to learn some skills and tactics to prep yourself

1. Relax Yourself

When you feel the pressure of being the center of attention, it is natural to feel nervous. But if you get it together, your brain can’t think and you might stammer when trying to speak.

Hence, you should do your best to beat anxiety, relax and compose yourself. Try these tips for practice:

  • Take Deep Breaths: Deep breathing is extremely useful in stressful moments. In fact, the American Institute of Stress asserts that this method of relaxation increases oxygen supply to our brains and stimulates parasympathetic nervous system, that puts us in a state of calmness. Breathing deeply helps relax your muscles, slow down racing heartbeats and quiets the mind. So be sure to do this before you respond to an impromptu question to collect your mind and think clearly.
  • Practice A Positive And Affirming Message: Give yourself positive thoughts confidence such as “I can do this” or “I’ve got this.” When faced with scenarios that require quick thinking, it’s good practice to motivate yourself with a few inspiring quotes, words or phrases.
  • Tense Your Muscles: Tensing your muscles can help relieve stress from your body to help you concentrate better. Be sure to choose muscles that can’t be seen by the questioner, such as biceps or thigh muscles.

2. Listen to the Question Carefully

When the questioner throws their question at you, ensure that you give your utmost attention to what they’re saying. For better results, cancel out any distractions such as silencing your cell phone and closing your laptop.

It’s also a good thought to study your questioner body language. When they ask the question, focus on their hand movements, eyes, and facial expressions. If they are smiling and making eye contact with you, it means they are interested in what you have to say.

But it’s not always the case because it might be just a facade to conceal their true feelings.

3. Ask to Repeat the Question

If you didn’t understand the question at first, then it’s alright to politely ask the questioner to repeat it.

This by no means, undermines your confidence in the presence of others, but rather gives you an opportunity to hear the question again in order to get a better understanding of it and respond more accurately. It also allows the questioner to rephrase the question so that it is on point and easier for you to comprehend.

For all you know, the questioner might have also been thinking on their feet when coming up with the question.

4. Speak With Confidence

It might seem vague, so we’ll just demonstrate how you can speak with confidence and motivation with these:

  • Speak In a Slow Pace: When under pressure, it’s tough to try and speak the words that we want to say. If you’re less certain about the next idea you want to talk about, then it’s probably best for you to speak slowly. This will allow your brain more time to process the insights, thoughts or ideas you want to get out of your mouth. It will also allow your audience to better process your response.
  • Speak With a Strong Voice: Please ensure that you don’t fill your response with “uhs” or “umms” and speak clearly with continued intonation. Strategic pauses are handy in allowing you to think and increase the strength and impact of your words.
  • Maintain Eye Contact: If you’re not maintaining eye contact with your prospect, it will make them feel you’re not engaged with the meeting. So don’t give them the chance to feel that way about you by not straying your eyes away from them. 

5. Ask Clarifying Questions

If you’re still not sure how to answer, then you can ask several short questions of your own for clarification. You can go about it like this:

  • Prospect Type Question: “Do you think your product has the X feature like that of Y competitor?”
  • Clarification Type Question 1: “That’s a good question. Could you tell me a little more about the purpose of X feature?”
  • Clarification Type Question 2: “How could you utilize X feature?”
  • Clarification Type Question 3: “How would X feature be of any benefit to your brand?”

By asking these questions and learning about the significance that X feature presents to your prospect, you can get more context with which you can answer their question.

It also gives you the opportunity to think whether your company has a similar feature such as X available or in development.

5. Project Confidence

It all comes down to the amount of confidence you have in yourself.

To be more specific, if you know what you do and how good you are at it, are regularly engaged with your tasks, have strong interactions with your peers and managers in general and have learned the industry, then you should be more comfortable in sharing your views, insights, and opinions in any situation.

6. Be Honest

If you’ve asked all the above clarifying questions to your prospect and still can’t properly provide your answer, then be honest with them. You may want to reach out to someone who can actually answer the question, depending on the formality of the meeting. It’s not like you’re quitting on them, so don’t make it that way and phrase your response in this manner:

“That’s a really good question. I can honestly tell how important X feature is to our solution by being the best fit for your company. So to give you an accurate answer, I’m going to share this question with some of my colleagues and get back to you on this topic by tomorrow.”

Everyone appreciates genuine honesty so there’s no need to feign it in order to make yourself look good. Your openness is what is surely going to gain the interest of both parties at the end of the day.

7. Give a Brief But Engaging Example

Providing an oral response to your prospect’s question can only go so far, but telling an interesting story or presenting a relevant example can help better illustrate your point to your audience. This way, you can show that your insights and thoughts have practical value instead of words that are coming out of your mouth.

Sharing anecdotal material can liven up the mood of your audience to further gain their interest and engage them at personal levels. It’s quite surprising how unaware many of us are with the kind of good storytelling material that we come in contact today. It’s almost like sharing a casual conversation you had your friend or family member.

8. Utilize the Power of Silence

Normally when you’re the focal point of a meeting or conference discussion, silence is anything but good. But if used strategically, you can make it look like you’re the one in charge of your thoughts and have the confidence to respond intelligently.

Take this piece of advice and pause. When you do this, you start to look and sound confident and poised.

You also have to avoid the temptation of answering quickly, which often results in you speaking quite fast and saying whatever might come to mind.

Pausing allows your brain to stay calm and utilize the power of silence to think about what you want to say.

9. Stick to One Point And Keep It Succinct

Being under pressure can cause you to ramble, that’s why it’s imperative to be succinct in this matter. In other words, choose one thought you have to talk about and give a brief statement to support it. It will enable you to stay focused and come off more authoritative.

Here’s an example of how you might be tempted to respond to a prospect’s question about whether or not your platform, let’s say, offers X feature as your competitor does:

“Well, you see….we do have Y feature that may be similar and currently being worked on, as well as A and C features that are looking to be released this fall and we’re really excited about that. We even have other clients that are already interested in the A feature, and I believe you could be an excellent candidate for a case study if you opt for our company and choose to go with A feature when it finally drops…”

Not only did you literally dodge your prospect’s original question, you also dragged it further from the actual response they were looking for.

Instead, you should answer it like this:

“At the moment we don’t have the qualities of what X feature offers, but I see three possibilities for us moving forward. First, I will collaborate with our engineering team to see if X feature can be built and what the timeline for it might look like. Second, we will see if there are other features currently available in our product lineup that deliver similar results like X feature. Third, we’ll work out what it means for both of our companies if we can’t meet the requirements of X feature.”

This way, you’ve not only answered their question honestly but have also set up a clear and confident roadmap on how to go about it.

10. Prepare Some “What-Ifs”

By acknowledging you may get asked questions out of nowhere, you can use all that time to predict some of the likely questions that could be thrown in your way.

For example, you could be asked to present the monthly sales figures to your management team.

There is a good chance that you’ll cover some of the most common questions that management teams may have, but it might just be good food for thought if you use the extra time to consider and prepare some of the other possible questions that could be asked.

Some other possible questions include:

  • What’s different about this month?
  • Are there any other anomalies that you can explain?

You need to spend extra time rehearsing and researching before you can answer these questions and also provide additional information to support detailed questions.

11. Avoid Being Defensive

Sometimes when people expect no one but you to answer their questions instead of others in the meeting room, you can’t help but feel annoyed or frustrated. In spite of the fact you’ve spent weeks preparing for this presentation of yours, all your hard work is about to blow up on your face.

Just bear in mind that it’s not as hopeless as you may make it out to be. It’s also not worth blasting your frustrations out on your prospect either. But it can be quite hard if what your prospect asks has already been covered, has little bearing on the outcome of whether they opt for your company or not, or perhaps their question is just unfounded.

You can try your best to address their concerns, but if you can’t offer them a proper solution or an explanation at the moment, then you should just move ahead with your presentation in a professional and polite manner.

12. Know When It’s Time to Stop Talking

There’s always a time when you need to say something and when you just need to button up. Business strategist Mark Goulston states that there are three stages of conversing with people:

  1. Business Stage
  2. Feel-good stage
  3. Off-stage attempt to recover stage

The last one, of course, is where you’ve lost the attention of your audience and you need to rebuild focus on the actual purpose of the presentation.

Gholston then recalls a great strategy that his fellow business coach Marty Neko bestowed unto him known simply as “The Traffic Light Rule.” The way it goes is this: In the first 20 seconds of your presentation, the light is green and your audience is engaged. In the next 20 seconds, the light turns yellow and your audience starts to lose interest. At the end of those 40 seconds, the light goes red, which is when you should stop talking.

If you want to continue, think about how you’re going to grab your listener’s attention once again by accurately answering their question this time. Instead of dragging on further, just ask your prospect, “Have I answered your question?” Then your prospect will certainly answer.

13. Use an Organized Structure

Apart from anxiety, another reason we tend to get panicky or blackout during unwelcomed meetings and conversations is that there are so many ideas that keep floating around in our head at once. This is when we are at the verge of wording those ideas out from the mouth, which we shouldn’t.

Understand that the questioner or prospect isn’t looking for you to give some kind of speech on the topic they want. All they want is a clear and concise answer with just enough information to satisfy their concerns and that requires structure.

So it’s best to limit yourself to just one or two points, but no more than that. And under each of those points, you can add either one or two brief statements. Here is an example of how you should respond to a prospect:

“Yes, I also recommend we migrate our current systems to a new platform due to three main reasons: First, the new software is virtually free of any virus and defects. Second, the new software seamlessly integrates with all of our systems. And lastly, this migration strategy ensures no downtime for our customers.”

14. Lookout for Nonverbal Cues

Now while body language is essential, it’s just as wise to take notice of your prospect’s non-verbal cues. According to body language expert Patti Wood, she says that nonverbal cues help determine the motivations of others and analyze business interactions with much more depth, richness, and insight that can come from spoken or printed words.

If you’re nervous about a question that you’ve answered, then probe the nonverbal cues that your prospect, as well as other stakeholders in the room, are giving off. Do they appear distracted, restless or disinterested? That’s when it might be time to switch things up a little or ask them directly: “It appears I’ve lost you guys. What can I do to bring some value and purpose into this conversation?”

But if your audience is in agreement with what you have shared with them and are holding on to your words with interest and vigor, it is a sign that you’ve handled the situation like a true professional and can move ahead without being nervous at all.


To briefly recap what we’ve discussed in our article, we’ve told you how to relax, pay attention the question being asked, pay attention to the questioner body language, breathe deeply, be confident, honest and ask clarifying questions.

Do you know what this means? It means you have excellently fortified yourself to take on any kind of unprecedented presentation, conversation or proposal that comes your way.

By mastering most or all of the techniques in this post, you will have slain your incompetence and will be able to steady your nerves as you think about your response to the questioner.

However, no matter how well you prepare yourself, you will always deal with situations that leave you stumped. But take that as a challenge that you’re about to conquer and ultimately turn into a brilliant skill.

14 Tips for Thinking on Your Feet When You're Put on the Spot and Have to Sound Smart

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