Thinking on your Feet: Leadership Communication

Thinking on your Feet

In a recent post, I spoke about a leader’s most valuable talent – the ability to resist making complicated things overly simple, appealing to the lowest common denominator.  This really got me thinking about one of the skills that we all respect and admire in great leaders: thinking on your feet.

Some people are brilliant at it.  They make it look effortless.  They make it look simple.  Even when the subject matter is complicated.  At its very best, thinking on your feet allows you to respond to a completely unexpected question as though you had prepared specifically for it – concisely, accurately, without waffle, and with a ‘structure’ that enables the audience to grasp the full meaning of the reply, leaving them in awe of your wisdom.

But make no mistake.  Just like the proverbial swan, gliding gracefully across the lake, real effort is going on behind the scenes!

Thinking on your Feet: It’s not just Making S*#t Up

Spotlight Goes On
Photo: Pixabay/CC0

This is really important.  I’ve seen many young leaders get confused here.  The spotlight goes on them – in an interview, a team meeting, giving a presentation or even speaking to the media – and they respond to a question with a made-up answer,  to avoid looking like they don’t know.  This is a bad terrible idea.  The ramifications can be far-reaching – even career ending.  Don’t ever do this.

It is always always ALWAYS better to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” than to make something up.

Thinking on your Feet: What’s Involved?

In essence, five key factors go into creating the illusion of effortless improvisation.


Thinking on your Feet
Photo: pexels/CC0

The first factor is preparation.  You must prepare thoroughly.  You have to be knowledgeable about the subject – whether that is your business, your own life experiences, the issue under discussion – you need to know as much as you possibly can.

If it is a subject that’s new to you, you’ll have to cram, but if it is something that you’ve been immersed in for a number of years, like the company you run, or the profession you belong to, this may be quicker, and less traumatic.

But you will still need to dedicate some time beforehand to preparing for this specific talk.  Try and anticipate what you might be asked.  Where will your audience be coming at this topic from?  Are they equally expert?  Are they users of your services?  Are they sceptics, or supporters, or competitors?

Be prepared!


You’re on the stage or at the Board table…  chances are you’re a little nervous:  “what if my mind goes blank? What if I lose my place?  What if they ask me a question I haven’t prepared for?

This is completely natural.

“The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.” – George Jessel

So how on earth can you be mindful at a time like this!  But hang in there, there’s method in my madness…

Mindfulness is the ability to observe your thoughts objectively, almost as an outsider.

Picture this:

  • an audience member asks you a tricky question about your subject matter
  • you begin to speak.  “That’s an excellent question…”
  • and in the time you take to say those four simple words (you can always add “thank you for asking” if it’s really tricky!)
  • *pop *pop *pop you notice three related but separate thoughts about the question appear in your mind
  • so you continue speaking “…there are three main aspects to consider.  First…” and you outline each one
  • “…and those are the main aspects.”
Mindful Practice
Photo: Pixabay/JohnHain

Mindfulness helps you gain mental clarity, so that you structure your responses in a way that makes them logical, easy to follow, and concise.  It also helps you sound pretty smart.

So how do you build mindfulness?

The best way I have found is meditation.  You can use an app like Headspace, check out classes in your community, or find a range of other resources available on line.  It takes time to build effective meditation practice, but it’s well worth it – and the benefits are not limited to your public speaking!

Flow (Ideally)

You know the saying “I was in the zone”?  This is something that happens to me when I’m speaking to large groups or doing media interviews.

Yes.  I’m weird.

I’m not sure this is essential, but it helps.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience talks about the state where time stands still when you are engaged in something you enjoy, and you are highly skilled at.

“One of the most common descriptions of optimal experience is that time no longer seems to pass the way it ordinarily does. The objective, external duration we measure with reference to outside events like night and day, or the orderly progression of clocks, is rendered irrelevant by the rhythms dictated by the activity.”

Photo: Pixabay/Geralt

For me, when I’m speaking ‘off the cuff’ and the stakes are high, time slows down.  I can anticipate the question before the person asking it has finished speaking… I can evaluate the motives of the person asking the question, and assess the risk they are trying to trip me or catch me out… I can scan my memory for previous times I’ve spoken about the same topic or issue… I can prepare and structure my answer… all before I need to start speaking in reply.

I’m not suggesting this is going to be possible for everyone, but I do want you to know that it is possible, and that practice, and confidence in your own knowledge of the subject matter, will go a long way to helping you get close.

Join your local Toastmasters or equivalent.  Accept speaking engagements willingly (even if it scares you).

“Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.” – Brian Tracy

I promise it will help.


If you want to leave a lasting impression, you need to connect with you audience – regardless of whether it’s one person or one thousand.

Why are they here, at this moment?  What are they looking for from you?  Are they worried about what you will say?  Can you put them at ease?  Are they bored?

You need to be aware of your audience, and try to understand what they need at this exact point in time.

Imagine yourself in that position, and then think about what you’d like to hear.

You’ll never reach everyone – but you are guaranteed not to if you don’t try!


If you’ve ever spoken with a teacher about their craft, you can begin to understand why their job is so hard.  Almost every pupil in his or her classroom needs to hear the same thing in a slightly different way in order for it to become meaningful for them, and for it to be retained and recallable.

Photo: Pixabay/3dman_eu

So here, by delivery, I don’t mean a polished speech, and I’m not talking about pitch, intonation, pace or sentence structure (although these things matter too).  I mean that if you are delivering complicated information that is new to someone, you need to think about two or three different ways of saying it.  Compound this if you are speaking to a group.

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” -Tony Robbins

Don’t assume that you know best when it comes to phrasing something so it makes sense to others – and even if they did get it the first time, reframing it reinforces its significance.


Think about a time you realised you were thinking on your feet?  How did you feel about it?  What did you do? I’d love to hear from you!

2 thoughts on “Thinking on your Feet: Leadership Communication”

  1. One thing, which should be mentioned in this context, is finding ways to get active feedback.

    Whenever you talk to people you never know what they experience in that moment. It is always hard to catch them all – which again depends on their specific situation, not you. Thereby, you need to seize the moment and look for active feedback.

    Feedback can be requested by asking or just by leaving space and observations, how people respond to it. You even can make it part of your speech, if you experience that people seem to be lost. Just mention, that you do hard in explaining something in the right way. This creates authenticity and lets people try harder to grasp the meaning – if they are interested. That’s also a kind of feedback.

    Finally ask dedicated people afterwards directly for their experience. If you did an authentic speech, you will get honest feedback, from which you can learn a lot.

    • Thanks Harald – this is such a great point! And it applies to things other than speaking/presenting too – all too often leaders (and others) assume that asking for feedback is a sign they are lacking in confidence or hunting for compliments!

      Thanks so much for stopping by!


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