Thinking on Your Feet



Some like to think of life as a journey, some as a test, and some as a movie. Many metaphors and euphemisms can be used for life, but the remarkable fact here is that if life were a journey, it would be one filled with roadblocks, speed breakers, and maybe a few shortcuts here and there, but surely one without a well-defined route. If it were an exam, it would be one where most questions are out of the syllabus, forcing you to think out of the box. And if it were a movie, it would be one without any disclaimer.

Unexpected situations in life do not come with a disclaimer or a warning; they are just thrown at you out of nowhere, and it’s up to you what you make of them.

When life gives you lemons, you don’t necessarily have to make lemonade; you can make margaritas, lemon tart, or a lemon cheesecake, for that matter. In the end, it’s not the situation that matters, but what you make out of it.

And how do you make the most out of every situation? By thinking on your feet.

How to Think on Your Feet?

How to think on your feet

When you are giving a presentation and somebody asks you a question you never could have anticipated, what do you do? No preparation helps you at that time; your own presence of mind, spontaneity, and ability to think on your feet come to your rescue.

1. Staying Cool and Confident Under Pressure:

When something is thrown at you unexpectedly, especially in a high-stakes situation, it’s natural for stress to kick in. However, it is such a situation that staying calm becomes even more important because tension and stress can cloud your judgement and hinder your ability to respond effectively. Rather than panicking, take a deep breath, assess the situation, and remind yourself that you are capable of handling challenges. Confidence is not about knowing all the answers but trusting your ability to find solutions.

How to Stay Calm Under Pressure

2. Be Fully Present:

Being fully present is a powerful tool in a world filled with distractions. When you are present in the moment, you can better focus on the task at hand and respond more effectively. Avoid multitasking and give your full attention to the situation. This not only helps you understand the nuances of the problem but also demonstrates to others that you are engaged and ready to address any issues.

3. Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open:

When thinking on your feet, it’s essential to understand the perspectives of those involved. Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal cues, and ask clarifying questions to ensure you have a complete understanding of the situation. Don’t just pay attention to the person you are talking to but to the people around you: listen, observe, and try to understand. This allows you to respond thoughtfully and appropriately.

4. Keep an Open Mind:

You don’t have to put people and situations into boxes; rather, embrace uncertainty and be open to different ideas and perspectives. Rigidity can limit your ability to adapt to changing circumstances. By keeping an open mind, you become more creative in problem-solving and can explore innovative solutions that might not have been apparent initially.

5. Practise Clear Delivery

Clarity in communication is crucial, especially when thinking on your feet. Practice delivering your responses in a clear, concise manner. Rather than going all technical or trying to sound too knowledgeable when asked a tricky question, speak clearly, confidently, and in a way that your audience understands what you are saying. In short, aim for simplicity without sacrificing substance.

6. Prepare

Everybody covers their syllabus before an exam but how do you prepare for out of syllabus questions? You can’t, and you don’t. Having said that, what you can do to prepare yourself for the unexpected questions is to be thorough with whatever you are presenting and understand it from different aspects.

Tips for thinking on your feet

Tips for thinking on your feet

While preparing isn’t exactly easy in this case, there are a few tips that can help you.

1. Have the Question Repeated

Sometimes, in high-pressure situations, the initial question might catch you off guard. It’s completely acceptable to ask for the question to be repeated. Not only does this give you a few more seconds to gather your thoughts, but it also ensures that you fully understand what’s being asked of you. It’s a simple yet powerful tactic to buy yourself a bit of time while maintaining clarity.

2. Use Stall Tactics

When put on the spot, it’s completely okay to not know the answer immediately. But rather than answering the question with some generic or incoherent answer, try to buy yourself some time. Employing stall tactics can be a strategic move when you need a moment to collect your thoughts. Techniques like paraphrasing the question or acknowledging it before diving into your response can help you create a buffer of time. For instance, “That’s an interesting question; let me gather my thoughts for a moment” can give you a brief pause to organise your response.

3. Use Silence to Your Advantage

Silence can be a powerful tool in communication. Embrace pauses when needed. It might feel uncomfortable, but taking a moment to think before responding demonstrates thoughtfulness rather than rushing into a hasty answer. Pausing also allows you to gauge the situation and respond appropriately.

4. Prepare Some “What Ifs”

Anticipating potential scenarios or questions can give you a mental framework to work with. Consider various “what if” scenarios and prepare rough responses in advance. For example, if you are giving a marketing pitch for a product, it is reasonable to assume that there will be a question about why you and not some other brand; prepare an answer for that. While you can’t predict every situation, having a few fallback plans or responses ready can help you navigate unexpected twists more confidently.

4. Stories are a lifesaver

At times, it is difficult to find the right words to express your point, or you might not have a concrete answer. In such a situation, stories and anecdotes can be really helpful. People often relate better to stories, and they can help convey your message effectively, especially when you’re put on the spot.

5. Engage

Rather than trying to answer every question that is thrown at you, you can answer with another question, or you can ask somebody from the crowd to give their opinion on that particular question. Even if you aren’t asked a question, engaging with the crowd and talking to them helps you get a measure of the people you are addressing.

6. Summarise and Stop

Once you’ve given your response, summarise the key points briefly. This not only reinforces your message but also signals the end of your response. It’s a way of wrapping up your thoughts confidently.

7. Own It Up

Finally, embrace the moment. Even if you feel a bit unprepared, own your response. Confidence in your demeanour can often overshadow any uncertainties in your actual words. If you have made any mistake, own it up and apologise if needed rather than trying to hide it. Even if you don’t know something, it’s okay to admit it gracefully. You are not supposed to be some know-it-all.


While the ability to think on your feet might not conventionally be considered a skill, it isn’t exactly an innate ability either. Thinking on your feet isn’t just about having quick reflexes; it’s also about employing strategies that help you get through unexpected situations smoothly. You need to make a conscious effort to remain calm, focused, and adaptable. By staying cool and confident under pressure, being fully present, relaxing, keeping your ears open, and maintaining an open mind, you give yourself room for creativity and spontaneity.

Recommended Readings:

How to Manage Difficult Conversations

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