One of the hardest parts of delivering a persuasive presentation can be handling questions. When done well, it can be an opportunity to boost your credibility and to develop trust. Done poorly, it can tarnish the impression you make and undermine the effectiveness of your presentation.
Knowing how to think on your feet and respond to questions with clarity and confidence can be an essential skill for anyone who needs to sell their ideas.
While you may not be able to prepare for every question you’ll field, you can improve your odds with practice and preparation. These tips and techniques can help you improve your quick-thinking skills and handle questions without letting anyone see you sweat.
1. Fast Thinking Starts With Brain Health
Consider getting a head start well before your next presentation by practicing behaviors that optimize quick thinking. According to Harvard Medical School, exercise boosts our thinking skills. “There’s a lot of science behind this,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School. Foods such as berries, nuts, and dark chocolate fuel cognition, and a 2021 SUNY Binghamton study found that just eight weeks of meditation makes the brain quicker. And when your presentation date arrives, a good night’s sleep can pay dividends in both concentration and mood, amping up your mental agility.
2. To Think on Your Feet, Use Your Ears
To master the ability to answer any question quickly, the single best habit you can cultivate is active listening. Active listening is a series of techniques that demonstrate your engagement with the speaker and, in turn, can help you internalize their words, equipping you to respond with focus and precision. Here’s how to do it:
- Listen attentively: Try to resist the temptation to start formulating an answer as soon as the person starts asking a question. Instead, try listening carefully until the very end. In his book, “In The Line Of Fire: How To Handle Tough Questions – When It Counts,” Jerry Weissman mentions the teachings of the Zen master who says “empty your cup” – that is, empty your mind of all thought so you can receive what’s being said.
- Withhold judgment: The question might leave you feeling surprised, irritated, or confused, but consider withholding criticism and be open to new perspectives and the possibility that you didn’t anticipate every point of view. Try to avoid behaviors and body language that could betray your intended response to the question.
- Provide feedback: Feedback can offer verbal cues for your audience, indicating that you may both value and comprehend the posed questions. This can range from thanking the hand-raiser for the question to asking your own clarifying questions to verify that you’ve truly understood their question or concern.
- Respond appropriately: An appropriate response can be informed by situational awareness. Consider being candid, direct, and open, while demonstrating respect for both the setting and your own subject expertise. Above all, try not to fake an answer. If you don’t know, try to simply say that; if reasonable, you can offer to follow up with more information.
Active listening is a skill you can practice regularly, in the workplace and with friends and family. The technique can be a powerful tool that can not only help you improve your ability to think on your feet, but also enrich communications and lead to stronger relationships.
3. Prepare a Mental Database of Anticipated Questions
Try to take the time to consider your audience and write down all of the prospective questions you can think of. Consider anticipating questions that expose any weaknesses in your argument or address controversial points in your presentation. We often may not spend enough time preparing for these types of questions; instead, we may avoid them and hope the audience won’t detect the weak spots. However, you can be sure that, if there’s a weakness, someone may pick up on it. To borrow Churchill’s phrase, these questions can target your presentation’s “soft underbelly.” Try to do your homework to strengthen your argument or, at the very least, prepare some viable answers that can help you think and respond quickly. Rehearsing those answers may help you project confidence if and when you’re put on the spot.
4. Focus On the Trigger Word
While listening to the question, consider focusing on the trigger word that can help you quickly think of your mental database of anticipated questions. For example, say you’re confronted with this statement: “I don’t believe there’s enough evidence to show us the benefits you just mentioned.” The trigger word here is “evidence.” By listening carefully for this word, you can quickly figure out how to answer the question – e.g., reference the research, customer testimonials, and any other evidence that supports your point – rather than going off on a tangent by repeating the benefits. It can show the listeners that you heard their concern loud and clear and are addressing it directly, without beating around the bush. People may respect this.
5. Create a Few Slides for Some Answers
This tactic can be a good one for complex topics that are best addressed with a diagram, chart, data, or detailed analysis. Try to note the numbers of these “back pocket” slides so you can go to them quickly while you’re answering the question. You can even say: “This question comes up frequently. I created a slide to help explain the issue better.” Or, “I had a hunch this question might come up. Let me pull out a slide that will clarify the issue.” Having these slides on deck can sidestep needing to think on your feet in the first place – or, at least, leave you more mental space to think and respond quickly when a challenging or unexpected question pops up.
6. Always Give the Short Answer First
Need to think on your feet? Consider giving the fast answer first, then elaborate if questioners ask for more. Often, they may not. This tactic can force you to get to the point and can eliminate your chances of rambling on. If there are follow-up questions, you may have more time to think about how to respond appropriately.
7. Reframe a Negative Question
Consider training yourself to have a reflexive reaction to negative questions. The idea is to immediately rephrase what was said in a neutral or positive light. For example, instead of saying “The question is about the mess we caused with the new software program,” try to reword the statement by saying “The question is about how we’ll address the past issues with our new software system.” Working swiftly to reword can automatically position your next sentences as positive and intentional, rather than as negative and defensive.
8. Use a Structure
Memorizing a structure to organize your thoughts in a coherent response can be a smart way to make it easier to think on your feet and quickly answer any question. Templates can be easy to remember and can be applied to any presentation. Here are a few structural templates to help you think faster.
- Consider using the rule of three. Let’s say you’re asked to elaborate about your business. You can describe your company in terms of past, present, and future by saying a few words about your company history, your current offerings, and your ideas for the future.
- Try using Feel, Felt, Found. This template can offer you a rapid way to respond empathetically to questions. First, try to acknowledge how the questioner feels. Then, try to validate their perspective by relating it to others who felt similarly. Finally, try to share the benefits that those others found and experienced, once they adopted your proposed approach.
- Consider pairing costs and benefits. If you’re asked a question that requires you to defend your costs, try to structure your points in terms of two buckets: costs and benefits. Try to always mention the concrete benefits.
9. Drop the Quest for Perfection
If you know your material and have prepared for questions, your last crucial step can be to embrace imperfection. Learning how to think on your feet can require accepting that the best first response is your objective – not necessarily the best-ever response. We may often fret about finding the right word, the most eloquent synonym, or the coolest turn of phrase. But as improvisational theater pioneer Keith Johnstone put it, “Dare to be dull; what is ordinary to you is often a revelation to others.”
Try to just focus on being authentic, on answering to the best of your knowledge, and on saying what you really think. Often, thinking on your feet can start with speaking from the heart.
The Bottom Line
Perhaps counterintuitively, part of learning how to think faster can be limiting the number of demands on your brain. You can improve your handling of any question by using a repeatable framework that lessens the need to think on your feet. For example, predicting questions in advance and sticking their answers on slides can help you respond to these queries quicker – all while leaving you more mental space to address other audience concerns. Other techniques can include giving the short answer before elaborating, focusing on the “trigger” word that connects the question to your thesis, or simply following a response template.
A version of this article was originally published on November 26, 2013.
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