Harvey Mackay Academy's Blog

The minister was preoccupied with thoughts of how he was going to ask the congregation to come up with more money than they were expecting for repairs to the church building. On top of it all, he was annoyed to find that the regular organist was sick and a substitute had been brought in at the last minute. The substitute wanted to know what to play.

“Here’s a copy of the service,” said the minister, “but you’ll have to think of something to play after I make the announcement about the finances.”

At the end of the service, the minister paused and said, “Brothers and Sisters, we are in great difficulty. The roof repairs cost twice as much as we expected, and we need more money. Any of you who can pledge $100 or more, please stand up.”

At that moment, the substitute organist played “The Star-spangled Banner.” And that is how the substitute became the regular organist.

The ability to think on your feet like this organist and react to events without prior thought or planning is a critical life skill. Some of the best training I received on this was when my father encouraged me to join Toastmasters International many moons ago. You have to get up on your feet at a moment’s notice and talk about a subject for several minutes.

In business, you never know when you might be called on to lead a discussion or team meeting, respond to an inquiry, solve a problem, present a proposal or sell an idea.

The key to thinking on your feet is confidence. You can’t worry about what others think of you or how they perceive you.

Prepare for every meeting. What are commonly asked questions? Rehearse for situations. Think of the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. You need to have working knowledge of the subject. Practice for what you think might happen.

Listen and pay attention to what is being said. Seek clarification if you don’t understand. One of the ways I do this is by repeating the question. This helps me make sure I understand the question, and it also buys me more time to prepare my response. It doesn’t hurt to say you need a moment to think about how to answer that great question.

Don’t be uncomfortable with a brief period of silence; rather use it to your advantage. It will convey that you are thinking and preparing a proper answer. Too many people rush to get their words out. Slow things down by pausing to collect your thoughts.

Another technique I like to use is storytelling. I often use humorous stories to drive home points. When I speak to corporate audiences, I divide my talks into lessons and wrap up each lesson with a humorous story. This engages people and captures their attention. Whether you have an audience of one or one thousand, storytelling can make a difference.

Get used to being put on the spot. You know it is going to happen, so do your best to anticipate what the other party is looking for. If you don’t know an answer, say so. Don’t add to the problem by making something up. You’ll look foolish.

If you are drawing a blank, turn the situation around. Ask if there is a desired outcome or response. It’s okay to ask, “Did you have something specific in mind?” or “What would be the best ending for this story?” Understand that the right answer may take some time to develop. And it’s not always the first or quick answer.

Finally, relax. This is especially hard when your heart is racing and you are feeling pressured. Calm down, take a deep breath, and resist the temptation to blurt out your first impulse just to get it over with. Chances are you will have a second opportunity to arrive at an acceptable reply.

A customer approached a stockboy at a neighborhood grocery store and asked if he could buy half a head of lettuce. No, he told him, they were sold whole.

But the customer persisted, pestering him to talk to the manager. The boy walked into the back room and said, “There’s some jerk out there who wants to buy only a half a head of lettuce.”

The stockboy turned around to find the man standing right behind him. He quickly added, “and this gentleman wants to buy the other half…”

Mackay’s Moral: The ability to think on your feet can prevent you from falling on your face.

About the Author

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.