How to Think on Your Feet

By Heather Baldwin

You’re meeting with a new prospect and he asks you a question that’s straight out of left field: "Why should I do business with someone who dresses like my Uncle Fred?" The handful of people in the world who are good at thinking on their feet can field these kinds of questions succinctly and with rock-solid professionalism. The rest of us either stand mute before stammering out a weak reply, or we ramble on and on, hoping the right answer will eventually tumble out.

Roger Davies is out to change that. Davies is CEO of Think on Your Feet International, a training organization dedicated to improving people’s verbal communication skills and their ability to – you guessed it – think on their feet. "The danger with sales people is they talk too much," says Davies. "They’re extraordinarily strong verbally, but they need to structure their ideas." These days when everyone is so busy, customers don’t have time to listen to a sales rep ramble. Thus a rep who can get his point across succinctly and clearly is a valuable asset.

Easier said than done? Not if you follow these three pointers from Davies:

1. Get to the point. If a customer asks what your software can do, he doesn’t care about all the technology behind it and all the years it took to create. He doesn’t even care about all the hundreds of functions it can perform. What he wants to know is this: What can it do for me? You should know your product and your prospect’s business well enough to give him a one- or two-sentence answer.

2. Provide some structure. Your answer should be structured in a way you can communicate at the outset. Davies says one of the most effective structures is the three-pronged response. In other words, when someone asks why they should buy from you, you should have three compelling reasons. Any more than that and it’s too many for the prospect to remember; any less and it’s not enough to make a convincing case. When you respond to the question, state at the outset of your answer that there are "three reasons" the prospect should buy from you. It not only helps you keep your answer focused, it helps the listener as well. He knows that after you make your three points, you’ll be done.

3. Paint a picture. If the answer to a question is so complex or so detailed that it will violate these first two rules, consider using an analogy to make your point. Davies knows one consultant whose company’s capabilities are so diverse that when asked to explain his business, he replies, "We grow acorns. We plant the seeds to help small companies grow into large oaks. This is something most people can picture. It’s very powerful," says Davies. Again, keep in mind that these responses are for situations where you’re required to think on your feet – to respond quickly to an unexpected question at a chance encounter. A more detailed answer would be more appropriate in a customized PowerPoint presentation. But your goal in a think-on-your-feet situation is to answer with brevity and impact. A metaphor or analogy to explain a complex concept is ideal in these situations.

Davies demonstrates these principles whenever people ask why they should take his course. He replies, "There are three main reasons people take our program. The first is to handle Q&A. You can’t script every sales question, so we show you how to organize your answer and come across professionally. The second reason is so a sales person can explain something complex in a way that is simple and easy to understand. And third, people take our program to become more persuasive."

The Think on Your Feet program is available in 25 countries and translated into eight languages. For more information about the course, the techniques and the impact it can have, visit