How to think on your feet and improvise at work
Simon Delaney helps you master the art of improvisation at work and communicate with clarity and gravitas.
Reading time: 3 minutes 30 seconds
The ability to remain calm and respond confidently when we’re put on the spot is a skill many of us wish we had. Performing at your best under ever-increasing time pressure, in a fast-paced business environment, isn’t easy.
Expectations – our own and others’ – can cause feelings of stress and overwhelm, making it difficult to stay in the moment and improvise.
If you relate to this, you’re in good company. Even the most senior leaders can find themselves struggling to communicate effectively.
The latest research report, Thinking on Your Feet, from RADA Business found that 81% of senior leaders are often placed in situations where they find it difficult to remain calm.
An additional 37% of leaders also claim that high-pressure scenarios make it harder for them to prepare their thoughts.
The good news is that there are a number of techniques that people at every level of business can use to manage nerves and give themselves the time and space to respond naturally and effectively.
When we’re put on the spot, it’s easy to feel rushed and compelled to respond quickly. Don’t.
Here’s how to draw upon techniques used by world-leading actors and apply them to the workplace.
If you know you are entering a situation where you’re likely to be thinking on your feet, take some time to prepare yourself physically and mentally with these three tips:
1. Release physical tension
Physical tension creates mental tension. Give yourself a moment to loosen up. Have a good stretch and gently shake out your limbs. Pull your shoulders up towards your ears, hold for a few seconds and let them drop as you breathe out.
Notice if you are holding a lot of tension in the jaw. If you are, gently open and close your mouth and create some space between your back teeth. Letting go of excess physical tension will also help release your voice.
2. Ground yourself
Turn your attention to your feet. Aligning your body and finding a stable stance will help you feel and project confidence. Place your feet firmly on the floor, hip-width apart, to give you a strong base to operate from.
Take a moment to really feel the floor underneath your feet. That stability is always there for you.
If you’re standing, make sure the knees are soft and not locked back. If you’re sitting, keep the spine engaged rather than giving your weight to the back of the chair.
Take a moment to centre your breath. Focus first on your out-breath – breathe out fully and let the next breath happen naturally. Try some square breathing: breathe in for a count of three, hold for three, breathe out for three, wait for three. Repeat a few times.
When the unexpected happens, try these two tips:
1. Pause and give yourself time
When we’re put on the spot, it’s easy to feel rushed and compelled to respond quickly. Don’t. Take the time to pause, breathe and really think about what you want to say next.
A pause may feel like a long time to you but it doesn’t for your audience. In fact, by creating space and time for yourself, you are also creating it for them, which they will most likely be grateful for.
2. Keep it simple
When learning improvisation, actors are taught to listen and respond authentically to whatever their fellow actor says or does. Often the simplest, most obvious, response is what is needed. It is the same in business.
Your ‘obvious’ response may seem unremarkable to you but to someone else it might not be. We can’t expect our every thought to set the world alight so take the pressure off and keep it simple.
In the heat of the moment, for example, have you really listened to the question? Do you really understand it? If not, resist the urge to start speaking and ask for clarification.
Keep the language simple, too. Using jargon or complex vocabulary rarely fools anyone, so take a breath, take a moment and trust you’ll find the words.
Best foot forward
Helping people feel more relaxed, confident and empowered in challenging situations allows them to think and communicate clearly, and show up at their best.
About the author
Simon Delaney is a tutor and client director at RADA Business
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