Getting caught off guard is anxiety-provoking for anyone. Here’s how to ensure you always have a well prepared answer.
If you want to advance your career, you need to be comfortable speaking up and voicing your opinions. Speaking up not only makes a positive impression, but also conveys your value and confidence. Successful professional knows that preparation is key to strong, succinct communication. Expressing yourself clearly is exponentially easier when you have time to premeditate a response. But what happens when you lack time to prepare, are asked an unexpected question, or are prompted to share thoughts on an unfamiliar topic?
Getting caught off guard is anxiety-provoking for anyone, but is particularly stressful for a group I like to call “sensitive strivers,” who have reactive central nervous systems. On the one hand, this makes them observant, perceptive, and attuned to people’s needs. On the other, they can become easily overwhelmed, especially when put under pressure.
Take my client, Caleb, an experienced cybersecurity professional. At this company, he’s highly regarded for his specialised expertise that he was recruited out of his current role into a new firm. The position was exciting and presented a huge opportunity for Caleb’s career. But the thought of greater visibility made him anxious. Whenever he had to think on his feet—Caleb froze. He would overthink his response and ramble on. After these events, he’d beat himself up and feel like an imposter, so incapable of doing the very job he had been recruited for.
Caleb came to coaching with me because he wanted to learn how to react with composure and coherence, even when caught off guard. And for good reason: thinking on your feet is an essential skill. In fact, spoken communication and problem solving are rated as 50% more in-demand by employers than other skills. The World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs” report also states that by 2025, competencies related to thinking on your feet, such as analytical and critical thinking, stress tolerance, resilience, reasoning, and ideation, will be among the most valuable professional assets.
Here are strategies I shared with Caleb to help him think on his feet effectively and make his impromptu communication more concise and confident. They can also help you speak up the next time you feel put on the spot.
START WITH APPRECIATION
Begin by letting the other person know that you have heard and value their input or request. You can say, “That’s a great question Jane. Thanks for asking. I understand why it’s so important to identify the next steps in this project.” This two-step formula of validation and appreciation allows you to deliver a fast reply and helps build goodwill through active listening. You can take it a step further by commending the person for the insight and intelligence inherent in their comments. For example, “The fact that you’re posing this now, Jane, says a lot about your level of conscientiousness and dedication to making this project a success.”
REPEAT THE QUESTION
Imagine you’re asked about status on a new technology rollout that your team is overseeing, but you haven’t been directly involved in the initiative. As manager, you’re still accountable for the results and need to provide an answer. In this situation, you could repeat back the question, asking for clarification. For example, “When you say you’d like a status report on the rollout, would you like me to focus on our resourcing requirements or feedback from the client so far?” Reflecting and clarifying gives you a moment to think and gather your thoughts. It also encourages your counterpart to get more specific, which in turn, can provide you with clarity and guide your response.
ACCESS YOUR PAST EXPERIENCES
Particular sensitive, yet ambitious, individuals tend to put pressure on themselves to produce novel, original thought on the spot. But when you’re caught off guard, the one of the best things you can do is rely on your existing body of work and expertise. Flip through your mental rolodex to try and find a prior professional situation to the one you’re facing now. Caleb employed this strategy in his new role. When asked for his perspective on the company’s cybersecurity strategy, he shared a brief anecdote about how he approached a similar situation in his prior role, which helped him build credibility.
RETURN TO FAMILIAR TERRITORY
Have you ever noticed how politicians skillfully duck questions and return to their talking points? They do this through bridging statements, which help you transition from one idea to another. They are particularly useful when you want to change the subject or steer the conversation from something you don’t know to territory that you do.
For example, you can try using the following phrases:
I cannot speak to X, but what I can say is Y.
While X is important, it’s also important to consider Y.
Let me first back up and give context on X.
STRUCTURE YOUR RESPONSE
One of my clients’ favourite tactics for speaking strongly and coherently impromptu is the PREP framework—which breaks down how to make a point succinctly, back it up with a reason, provide evidence, and end by reiterating your point.
Here’s what the PREP framework looks like in practice:
Point: I believe we should take direction X.
Reason: We’re received positive feedback about this approach.
Evidence: For instance, our president said he supports it.
Point: That’s why I believe direction X is best.
You can use this PREP framework to structure an entire presentation or to make a single contribution in a meeting. You can also deliver your response in terms of steps, pillars, or keys to be aware of. Using a structure helps you keep your thoughts organised and helps your listeners follow along and retain what you’re saying.
You don’t always need to provide an answer in the moment. To defer a response, you can say you need to loop back, but explain to the person why doing so is in their interest. For instance, you can say, “Let me do some research and get back to you, so I can give you the best answer possible,” or “To give you the most accurate answer, I’d like to check with a few colleagues and touch base with you by Friday.” Despite an unexpected prompt, remember that thoughtfulness, thoroughness and deliberateness are valuable, highly respected qualities.
Article originally published on fastcompany.com.