Public Speaking Tips for Thinking on your Feet
Thinking on your feet is clearly a valuable skill for any speaker.
It is always impressive to observe someone who can adapt to the circumstances around them and still continue to express themselves coherently.
In a political interview it might be the journalist’s job to try to pin down a politician with a searching question and it becomes the politician’s job to answer that question in a convincing way without committing themselves to an answer that they might later regret!
However, this is a very specific example of thinking on your feet as often the politician’s ability to think on their feet mainly comes down to a skill of evasion and avoidance.
However, for most of us in Public Speaking, learning to think on our feet is more about flexibility, staying in control, not panicking, a skill of being able to respond to a situation and still stay on track with the message of our presentation.
Therefore the key to creating a successful presentation lies in being able to apply the apparent contradiction of ‘Planned Spontaneity’.
This means having a clear idea of what the key messages and the important ideas are, while at the same time having flexibility in how those messages and ideas are going to be delivered.
This means the skill of thinking on ones feet is less about coming up with new ideas under pressure and more to do with being able to hold a position until you find your thread and get back on message again.
A common fear for all of us is to get lost in a speech and then to become distracted and confused and so lose the thread. Therefore the skill of thinking on your feet is primarily about developing the confidence to know there is no need to panic because you know you can find your way in again!
Public Speaking clubs normally base their activities around two formats:
(i) prepared speeches, where the attendee is required to go away and prepare a brief speech, which for education purposes is usually set to showcase a specific skillset (such as Use of Voice, Use of Gestures, Simple Structure, Eye Contact, Use of Story), and
(ii) improvised speeches, where the attendee is thrown a subject or a title and they are required to speak for a couple of minutes off the top of their head. (These are usually referred to as ‘Topics’ or ‘Impromptus’ and are used to develop confidence and competence ‘on your feet’)
When I first went to a Public Speaking club and I heard about these impromptus, I assumed that in order to be deemed successful in responding, I would need to introduce at least one quote from Shakespeare or some other admired literary source and then make some deep philosophical pronouncement on the subject.
As it turned out, the main aim of the impromptu seemed to be to keep your mouth moving for the allotted time and if the words led to some coherent conclusion, all the better.
I began to understand that the main aim of speaking for a couple of minutes without preparation was to develop the confidence to know that under most circumstances we will find something to say.
Put that together with the work done on prepared speeches and slowly we can empower the new speaker to have the confidence to do less word-for-word preparation for their prepared speeches and to focus more on the key ideas and messages, while developing, based on their impromptu experience, the confidence that they can speak freely and spontaneously without becoming confused.
Any speech that has been written word for word will tend to be too rigid and inflexible and renders the speaker incapable of responding to circumstances, whereas a presentation with no preparation at all will tend to be rambling and pointless. ‘Planned spontaneity’ is the happy balance, because under pressure the tendency is either to try to over-prepare or to throw up our hands in despair!
10 tips for thinking on your feet
Know your subject
Just as you would not expect a saxophonist to be able to improvise without fully mastering the instrument, you cannot be fully confident in speaking freely on your subject unless you know it well. You will notice this if you have attended a training course where the trainer is not fully in command of the subject. They will stick rigidly to their notes or slides because they don’t know much else!
I recently attended a book promotion by Natalie Haynes, an expert in and writer of many books on classical mythology. She came on stage to speak for an hour without any notes – just a microphone and a can of Diet Coke and she spoke marvelously for 60 minutes.
With what she knows about Greek or Roman myth she could probably talk for many hours, so her main challenge was less ‘What can I say?’ and more ‘How can I stop?’
As her book was about powerful female deities, her structure was very simple: introduction to the subject; choose 3 goddesses and talk for about 15 – 20 minutes about each one.
In her head, she had probably many hours’ worth of material that she could access on each goddess so could speak freely and finish on time.
Add to this, Natalie Haynes is much more than a bookish academic, because she has also experience in stand-up comedy, which has taught her an ease of manner and confidence in her ability to relate to her audience and respond to the unexpected.
Conclusion: a profound depth of experience with a subject + confidence in one’s knowledge + a very simple structure - and we have all the ingredients for a very dynamic, successful, and fully engaging presentation.
That of course is all very well.
Here is the problem though; what if we don’t have that depth of knowledge, or the confidence?
Draw a clear circle around your subject
You can never know everything about everything, but you can at least start by trying to know everything about something.
It will take years to even approach Natalie Haynes’ depth of knowledge of the classics, but if you chose to focus on one aspect of one Goddess, you could build a presentation about her. You could then prepare to talk about three specific examples of that Goddess’ life and already you have a purpose and a structure as well.
Therefore it is a good idea to learn to…
Natalie Haynes’ experience in her field and her confidence in her ability to present meant that while she was talking about Greek goddesses she was able to tell a few jokes and make some strong references to modern politics and feminist issues, but the essence of her presentation was built around telling stories and giving examples.
I always recommend to speakers in clubs or in competitions who are given one of these spontaneous topics to talk about, to try as quickly as possible to come down from abstract generalities of the title and use the magic words ‘for instance’ to introduce a specific story or example.
On the one hand, it makes you a more natural communicator (and that is a subject for another time) but on the other hand, you now have a chunk of clear material to talk through.
I imagine that before Natalie Haynes’ presentation became so smooth and polished, she would be able to say to herself:
three Goddesses – let’s say, Aphrodite, Athene and Artemis (all start with ‘A’ so that makes them easy to remember) – three stories on each of them - and so her rehearsal is not about reading her notes or memorising lots of facts and data, it is simply to talk through the stories regularly. She does not need them word for word, she just needs to know how to move from one story to the next story and from one main point to the next main point.
Maybe what I am suggesting still feels a bit hard!
For most of us, the very thought of standing up is already appalling enough and now you want me to stand up without notes?
Therefore a major presentation tip is to shrink or simplify the task until you find a level that feels manageable.
Often I will ask a very unsure speaker, who is petrified at the thought of standing up at all, to do no more than introduce their subject and themselves without using notes and then if they need to they can go straight back to the shelter of their slides or notes.
If they can manage to get their subject and name out, next time as they introduce the subject say why it is important, which means they can tell a little story about why the subject matters and then when they say their name, they can give us a relevant autobiographical fact about themselves and suddenly they have a sixty – ninety-second introduction that they can deliver without notes. They have not committed themselves to any specific words, they just need to remember a couple of key facts for each story.
And that is a start!
If you are speaking on a subject where you do not have Natalie Haynes’ breadth of knowledge, having drawn an effective circle around what you intend to cover, you can prepare answers for some likely questions, and since you have drawn a clear circle around your subject, you can easily push back on any questions that do not relate to your subject.
Keep a clear focus on your key messages
When you are asked a question, rather than flailing about thinking of a suitable answer, think about how the question relates to one of your key messages and answer the question by referring it back to that message.
So far the tips I have offered may still sound a little advanced. So...
‘What happens if I simply freeze and go blank?’
Give yourself a moment. Pausing is a tool of power for a speaker. If you pause while speaking or before an answer, your audience is committed to waiting until you are ready. If you pause in a conversation, somebody is likely to jump in immediately and take over. In a speech, everyone has to wait.
When the US Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell became unwell in front of reporters and his brain actually shut down for 30 seconds, it was a good few seconds before anyone realised there was a medical problem. They just thought he was taking a long moment to consider his next comment. So if you go blank yourself, give yourself a moment and understand what seems like a long gaping silence to you, only seems like a moment of pause to the listeners.
Repeat the key message of the presentation
When we lose the thread in a conversation we can often find ourselves asking:
‘What was I talking about? - ….Oh Yes, summer holidays!’
The same can happen on stage. The difference being that in a conversation we could be meandering from subject to subject, whereas for speech we should know what our message and purpose of the talk is, so that if we go blank, we should be able to quickly refer to the subject as a reminder of where we should be going.
Breathe or take a drink
The act of breathing deeply or taking a drink of water, as well as buying a few moments, can act as a circuit breaker. The change of attitude or action can be like a reset on a frozen computer and shake you out of the momentary freeze.
I imagine that apart from liking Diet Coke, a few times in her life Natalie Haynes has taken a good long swig of coke, just to gather herself and reset, and then move on.
The best way of becoming better under pressure is to put yourself regularly in the situation.
I remember being in a National Speech final for impromptu speaking and as we were waiting one after the other to be called into the auditorium and be given our topic to talk on, one of my fellow competitors said to me:
‘This sort of competition is a lot about luck. It depends on getting a good subject that you can talk on.’
I smiled and nodded, because firstly, I am a compliant person and secondly, two minutes before going out to speak to a large room full of people on an unknown subject is not the moment to cloud your mind with a discussion,
but in my mind I thought:
‘No it doesn’t. The key is to learning to take any subject, quickly relate it to your own knowledge and experience, relate that back to the audience, and try to come to some sort of conclusion,’
That does take a bit of practice – but armed with that attitude, you will feel more in control of the situation.
And maybe that was part of the reason I won that competition!