What stops you from thinking on your feet?

You’re in that big meeting and you’ve got the opportunity to shine. There’s a big juicy problem that needs to be solved, and for the person who can solve it, there’s glory to be had: bonus and promotion opportunity, not to mention the kudos too. The only problem? You’re scared shitless about stepping up and making a fool of yourself, so you keep quiet and play it safe and kiss that bonus and promotion goodbye. That is, unless you can overcome those fears and obstacles that stop you from thinking on your feet and saving the day.

In today’s tips, I’m going to identify the biggest obstacles to thinking on the fly and reveal the ways we can overcome them to be the star of the meeting.

There are 4 (four) key obstacles to thinking on your feet like a genius:

Obstacle #1: Politics

Say one thing that disagrees with one of the execs in the room and you’ve created an enemy. You can see they’re missing the point, but if you steer them in another direction, you’re worried that they’ll think you’re making them look bad. How can you get them back on course without making enemies and being relegated to obscurity in the process?

Obstacle #2: Half Baked ideas

You’re worried your ideas will fall flat and they’ll suggest you go and become a performer at “Cirque de so lame” with your half-baked ideas. How can you shoot an idea from the hip, even if it’s off-target without getting shot down?

Obstacle #3: Public speaking nerves

Even though you know your stuff, and you’ve got a killer solution to the problem at hand, because there’s some heavy hitters in the room, your throat’s gone dry, your palms are sweaty and you know your voice will sound like that of a breaking teenager’s. How can you speak like a pro without letting your nerves debilitate your presentation?

Obstacle #4. Rejection

You know that no matter how good your solution is, it’s likely to be shot down because of the risk-averse culture. How can you flip a potential rejection into a win? Or walk away after the rejection without feeling you need to go to a self-esteem-building workshop to recover your confidence?

How Do You Overcome These Obstacles?

Piggyback on others' ideas - Ideas With Legs.png

Prescription #1: Taking the politics out of the situation to make it safe to share.

The quickest way to make an enemy in the meeting room is to stomp all over someone else’s idea. Even if someone else’s idea is way off-course, the smartest most effective thing to do is to piggyback on their idea. “Piggybacking” is when we add to someone else’s original idea, even if it takes a new direction. For example, you might say “Piggybacking on Lisa’s idea, we could consider adding a…” or “Spring-boarding off Raj’s idea, we might consider combining this with a…”

The power of piggybacking is that it acknowledges the other person’s idea and contribution, which makes your solution or idea seem like a team effort, which in turn makes the other person look good and be more amenable to your idea. It’s that simple.

Frame up the space - Ideas With Legs.png

Prescription #2. Making the space uncritical of half baked ideas.

It sucks when you share an idea, but it gets shut down before others can work with it to develop it into a better idea. Our brains are association machines and, believe it or not, sharing ideas (even when half-baked) makes it easier for someone to come up with a better idea. The only challenge is we need to be able to create the space where people are thinking of how to add to an idea versus shoot it down.

An effective way to make the space safe for this is to frame up the space before sharing your ideas. “Framing up” is in some ways similar to the movie classification that you may see before a movie e.g. “The following movie is rated ‘M’ for mature audiences. It includes frequent coarse language…” This prepares the audience for that upcoming language and reduces their objections to it. We can use the same approach when sharing our thoughts by simply saying “It’s likely that we all have some ideas today that might be left of center and yet it’s important for us to share these as even if they don’t solve the problem straight off, they’re likely to help us piggyback to create even better ideas. So, to kick things off here’s a couple of ideas…”

Use inclusive words - Ideas With Legs.png.png

Prescription #3. Diluting public speaking nervousness.

Everyone experiences a level of nervous tension when speaking to a crowd. I get the same nervous energy whether I’m speaking to 3,000 people or to a board of directors. It doesn’t go away, but it’s impairment on me is minimal, thanks to inclusive language.

Put on the spot, most of us will use dictatorial language including phrases such as “I think that…”, “I know that…”, “It seems to me that the big problem is..” Dictatorial language includes the words “I”, “me”, and “myself”. The problem with this language is that it subconsciously creates an arrogant undertone to the message that says “it’s all about me”. The others in the room subconsciously start to judge the person using these words thinking to themselves “who’s this upstart who thinks they can solve this problem? What would they know about the problem?” This subtle energy is projected by the audience to the speaker in the form of crossed arms and a closed attitude, which is often picked up by the speaker. This increases the speaker’s nervousness, which in turn increases the use of the words “I”, “me” and “myself”, and things go downhill quickly.

Accusatorial language is the other language we can default to when under pressure. This is when we use phrases such as “What you’ve failed to see is…”, “what they haven’t done is..”, “What you need to do is…”. Accusatorial words include “you”, “she”, “he”, and “they”.

As you might imagine, this accusatorial language sets an undertone to the message that puts the audience on defense and they become resentful that you are pointing the finger at them for the problem (often, people will unconsciously point a finger when this accusatorial language happens) and the audience therefore shuts down to your ideas or solutions.

The language that will not only reduce the nervousness as well as open the minds to the audience is to use inclusive words such as “we”, “us”, “ours”, and “together”. An example would be to create a phrase such as “We are facing a challenge…”, “Our problem has been…”, “Together, the best we we can approach this issue is..”

For the audience, hearing these words creates this mindset that this person is one of us and we’re in this together. It becomes more of a conversation than a presentation in their minds, even though you might be the only one who is speaking. The most important part is that because of using the words such as “us”, “ours” and “together”, we make the speaker feel it’s more like a conversation and therefore, the nervous tension is a lot less, because you’re just having a conversation. This might seem to be an absurd technique and yet it works. It works for an audience of 3,000 or an audience of 3.

Inquire about the rejection and ask for a compromise - Ideas With Legs.png

Prescription #4. Turning a rejection into an approval or keeping your head held high if you get a ‘no’ .

Getting a “no” for an idea happens often, yet we can turn this into either a “yes” for a modified idea or at least get a good reason for the “no” and a possible path to another solution. To start with, if you get a “no”, ask why specifically it’s a no-go. If they can’t do your first solution, could you get away with something close to it and what would be a compromise? Use this as an opportunity to collaborate around the new solution.

If you think the idea is a good one, but could be used elsewhere, it never hurts to ask if there might be another department or area that the solution might be applied. Remember that every rejection will have a number behind it. Keep coming up with enough solutions and you’ll usually get a “yes” in the end. 

Rejection happens every day, we simply need to desensitise ourselves to it. Get better at handling it by asking for an unusual request where you expect to get knocked back. For example, “Could we recruit for another team member to help us in our next project?” You might get knocked back, but you were expecting it so it’s no biggie, and yet sometimes you’ll be surprised and get a yes. Preface the request with a way out for the person by saying “I think this is an unusual request, and it’s totally fine to say no, yet I’d like to ask…”.

Finally, give them a reason for your request. Research shows that when we add a reason simply by adding the word “because”, we can increase the chances of the request being accepted. For example, “Can we poach Samara for the next project because we’re adamant that she’ll be able to help us nail this project in half the time with her help…”


While there’s a number of obstacles to thinking on your feet like a genius, remember there’s a prescription to flip the situation:

  • Obstacle #1: Politics - counter by “piggybacking” on someone else’s original idea versus challenging their idea.

  • Obstacle #2. Half-baked ideas - counter by “framing up” the space before sharing your ideas. It’s important for us to share all our ideas even if they don’t solve the problem straight off because they’re likely to help us piggyback to create even better ideas.

  • Obstacle #3. Public speaking nerves - reduce the nervousness and open the minds to the audience by using inclusive words such as “we”, “us”, “ours” and “together”. For example, “We are facing a challenge…”

  • Obstacle #4. Rejection - counter the rejection by asking why specifically it’s a no go. Then see if you could get away with something close to it, what would be a compromise?

Having these tactics up your sleeve will give you much more confidence and success in “thinking on your feet” and being the star of the meeting.

If you’re interested in a workshop or mentoring on this crucial skill of thinking on your feet, we’re here to help. Contact us to find out about our workshops or check out our mentoring services.


Nils Vesk

Founder of Ideas with Legs | Innovation Speaker | Consultant | Author

nils vesk