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Tips and Tricks for Thinking on Your Feet
By Chris King

I promised one of my subscribers, who is also a member of Toastmasters, that I would write this article. You see, at a Toastmasters club meeting there is usually a section for “Table Topics.” You don’t know ahead of time what the topic will be until you are called upon to speak for a minute on that topic. It is excellent training, but can also become mind boggling for the newer speaker.

There are also members assigned to give evaluations of the presentations and presenters. Again, you must be able to succinctly and helpfully address the group on your feet with little time beforehand. The more I considered this topic, the more I realized that it doesn’t just apply to a Toastmaster meeting, it will also apply to many situations in which we find ourselves: networking, all kinds of meetings, interviews, radio or TV appearances, voice mail and phone calls. So, how can you become known as someone who is articulate, engaging and can “think on your feet” with ease. Read on.

My number one suggestion is to be prepared.
You ask, “How can I be prepared if I don’t know what the topic, the question or situation will be?” If you are serious about becoming known for “thinking on your feet” you will need to commit to spend time preparing. Following are some of my preparation tips and tricks:

  • Table Topics – or actually any topic that comes up in everyday conversations. First of all realize that topics will revolve around the time of year, common themes, what’s in the news, trends and, possibly, history. We are not dealing here with “rocket science” so being completely accurate and not straying from the topic one little bit is not necessary if you present in a lively and interesting way. I suggest thinking of the various topics that might be discussed and prepare short, lively and fun stories that speak to those topics. Even if the topic is not exactly what you prepared, you can start with, “I am so glad you asked me that, because it reminds me of the time when …” Listeners are more fascinated by good content, delivered well, than by facts and figures.
  • Evaluations – again, be prepared with a plan. When asked to evaluate a presentation, or an idea or proposal, I always follow these steps. Start by listing the strengths and appreciations – what you especially enjoyed about the presenter’s style and the presentation. Next, do you have any questions? For example, you could say something like, “I was a bit confused when you said … I would suggest more clarity here.” Then, mention one or two suggestions, keeping in mind the level of the presenter. Even if the presenter is a seasoned professional, too many suggestions may not be helpful – just remember that your job is to be helpful, not critical. Wind up an evaluation by repeating what impressed you the most about both the presenter and presentation.
  • Have a prop or props – again with preparation be ready with a prop that can serve as a metaphor or will make an impact. I attended a networking session this past week, where one of the attendees was a magician who performs for businesses at their conferences, meetings and trade shows. He had our attention immediately when he started pulling coins out the air and asking how much magic we have in our marketing messages. You don’t have to be a magician, however, to use a prop. A mini boomerang can be a metaphor for “whatever you send out will come back to you.” A packet of seeds could stand for “what we sow will grow.” You get the idea, look around for common objects – erasers, highlighters, paper weights (stability), scissors, etc. – and figure out how you might use them in a variety of ways. Make it fun and it will be fun for your listeners, and I guarantee you will be remembered.

My number two suggestion is that “interesting people are those who are interested.”
We are definitely in the Information Age, so there is no reason not to keep up with interesting information. The great news is that with the Internet so handy we have all sorts of way to keep up-to-date with a plethora of topics, trends, careers, communications and groups. Following are a few of my favorites:

  • Newsgroups, Yahoo Groups and Listserves – no matter what your interests are, there is a forum, a discussion board, group and/or an active list that you can find to join. Some are loaded with interesting and eye opening topics, while others are babble. Take part in the interesting ones you find, because you will never be without an answer when called upon. By interacting, you will become more experienced in expressing your ideas. If someone doesn’t agree with you or understand you, you will learn how to be more precise – all will help with “thinking on your feet.” A quick way to get started is to search Google Groups or Yahoo Groups. Both offer a wide variety. As you visit websites of interest and sign up for their discussion boards or forums.
  • – at this site, you sign on for news feeds, blogs, lists, etc. It is your choice, but the best part is the variety. You can check out the headlines and the blogs quickly and read only what interests you. Yes, keeping up can take time, but it is worthwhile time. Besides the learning you will experience, you will have lots of interesting information at your fingertips and in your mind when called upon to “think on your feet.”

My number three suggestion is to use research to your advantage.
If you are interviewing with a company or meeting with them to give a presentation, find out all you can about them ahead of time. Again the Internet and search engines are a huge help. Besides finding out about them in particular, research their industry and niche. They will be impressed by how quickly you grasp what their challenges are while “thinking on your feet.”

  • Radio and/or TV appearances – if you will be appearing, make sure you have a list of questions ready for the host with your excellent answers ready and prepared. Even if they don’t ask the questions, you can always answer the question you wanted them to ask. Just switch smoothly. This takes research on what usually happens on this station or channel. Again, turn to the Internet for broadcasts and sample interviews – most are there.
  • – this is a reasonably priced product that, in my opinion, is the best for research, topics, news and answers to any questions you might have. Besides the great dictionary and encyclopedia, you get history facts, birthdays and a quick way to find definitions and explanations. One way I use it for networking is look up the news for that day, along with the important births and events that occurred on that date. Great conversation openings.

When I sum up my suggestions, I guess that my main theme is that nobody can just “think on their feet” without preparation. It is time for us to get busy preparing.

Remember, it will not only be interesting, it will be fun too! Let me know how it goes!

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