You're minding your own business when you bump into someone important and he or she asks you a question. Suddenly, you're at a loss for words and find yourself stammering about awkwardly. Or maybe you're in what you thought was going to be a mundane meeting when out of the blue someone wants to know your perspective on the topic at hand, but your mind goes completely blank.
Don't kid yourself. This is not some quirk of personality or abnormal brain wiring to which you're simply a victim. Thinking on your feet and communicating eloquently during spur-of-the-moment interactions is a skill anyone can master.
Take it from Bill McGowan, CEO and founder of media training company Clarity Media Group, Emmy Award-winning correspondent and author of Pitch Perfect: How to Say it Right the First Time, Every Time. Here's his advice on the subject.
Don't just start talking.
People often feel a need to immediately launch into a response or present a point of view, but doing so is a mistake if you're not ready. "I find most people from their anxiety just launch into what Michael Scott on 'The Office' amusingly referred to as an 'improversation,' which is a conversation where I start the sentence and I have no idea where it's going," he says. So, take a moment or two to plan what you're going to say before you open your mouth.
When you feel like you're under pressure and you need to come up with something brilliant on the spot, your heart rate increases, your mind begins to pinball and you speak faster than you normally would. "The less certain you are about the next idea coming out of your mouth and the words you're going to use to articulate that thought, the slower you should be talking," he says. "You want your vocal pace to allow your brain more lead time to get out in front and navigate not just the first thing that pops into your head, which I think is what we all do when we're under stress."
Prepare for commonly asked questions.
Through the course of doing business or networking there are a handful of questions you should always be prepared for and have answers at the ready. They will vary depending on your industry or profession but may include classics, such as:
- What are you doing now?
- How's your business doing?
- What are the biggest challenges you're facing right now?
- What do you enjoy doing the most?
- Where do you see your business in five years?
"Or even the very mundane 'So what's new?' A lot of people never prepare for the conversation starter and... go off half-cocked without any kind of idea of where they're going to take it," he says. "Have an idea of what you want to convey about yourself."
Engage in brief but interesting storytelling.
After identifying (on paper) at least a half dozen topics that tend to come up in casual business networking, also think of an interesting story or example you can give that illustrates whatever point you're trying to make. "Be on the lookout for anecdotal material [you] can use in conversations to be more of a visual story teller which is going to capture people's attention and engage them a lot more," he says. "I think that most of us are unaware of how much good storytelling material we come into contact with every day. It could be just relating a conversation you had with somebody."
Ask for more time.
But what if you're put on the spot and you honestly don't have a good answer? Instead of offering a lame filler response that's going to make you look bad, offer to come up with an excellent answer after giving it some thought. "What you're trying to do is make it sound like 'You know, if you want me to I can give you something off the top of my head but I think it would be much better for me to... come up with two or three options to send you post meeting that I think are thoughtful, thorough and considered," McGowan suggests.
Prepare for every meeting.
This advice holds true even if you plan on only being a spectator. "You should never go into a meeting without planning what your response would be if the boss wheeled around, pointed at you and said 'What's your point of view on this?" he says. "There's no excuse for being at a loss. You should always be prepared to articulate what your point of view is."