You’ve been there. You’re sitting in a meeting and suddenly you are asked for a quick update on your current project. You are giving a presentation on X and you are asked a question about Y. Or you get an unexpectedly hostile question. After a huge pause that seems an eternity, you come up with a response.
While it’s certainly not pleasant to be caught in these situations, you can prepare yourself so the next time you are caught off guard you can think fast and save the day. How?
1. Know your subject matter. Don’t try to wing it if you don’t have the information you need to discuss a given topic. Don’t try to make up facts or figures. If you are asked to speak on a subject you don’t know well, either decline the invitation (if you can) or study hard to become an overnight expert.
2. Care about the topic and let it show. If you don’t care about the subject matter, your mind is likely to drift…but if you feel strongly about it, your mind will tend to be crisp and focused. Your enthusiasm can provide power and drama. In addition, your commitment to the content will often make up for a lack of polish.
3. Use mini structure. No time to pull together total logic? Just come up with two or three pertinent facts and then riff off them. You can tick these facts off on your fingers if you need to. Just don’t fall into the trap of saying “I have three reasons” if you might forget one of them. Instead, say, “I have a few reasons…” Name and explain the reasons one by one. Wrap up with a quick “So those are a few reasons we need to…”
4. Use simple transitions. “Another reason is…another step is…another challenge we face is…” These simple transitions are great because they signal what information is following, and gives you time to think and focus. Without transitions you might sound like you are rambling.
5. Use note cards or a notepad. When you are caught off guard you won’t have slides to keep on point, and that’s OK. If you have a minute, jot down the 2-4 key points you want to make, or a few key numbers you want to stress. Put your note where you can it as you speak. Then talk from those key words or numbers. You will sound more organized, and feel less stressed.
6. “Go there” in your mind. See the project, the faces of the people, or the product you are manufacturing. Talk about what you see. You will find that words flow more easily when you are connected to the subject matter in an intimate way.
7. Avoid thinking ahead. Any time you begin to think about what comes next (your next fact, reason, or challenge,) you will lose focus on the point you are currently making. Sometimes our voices become soft or hesitant. Other times we start using fillers to buy time. Awkward! Better if you finish your thought completely before thinking of the next things.
Prepare yourself now by thinking which of these strategies might be helpful. Watch great speakers in your organization as they think on the fly or answer questions. Ask someone to put you on the spot for practice, and see how you can respond. Great speakers shine even when they are caught unprepared. So can you!