Thinking on your feet is usually used in context of how well you speak in front of other people without any formal preparation.
Why don’t we say speaking on your feet? I don’t know, but the phrase thinking on your feet works well for our purposes right now, since our speaking should be an extension of how we think.
When people work to improve their communication skills, they usually enroll in classes, buy books, or join groups to become better public speakers. But for most people, how often do we give a scripted, formal public speech? Very rarely. Those opportunities are few and far between. Most of our talking is during conversations, meetings, phone calls, etc.
Dale Carnegie shouted the fact that to become better public speakers, we should perfect our natural method of conversation and then carry that to the platform.
Even for leaders, the number of informal “speeches” they give probably outnumber the formal ones 100 or 1,000 to 1.
So the greatest payoff we can get, as far as improving our communication skills (which is the most wanted career skill), is by improving our impromptu speaking.
Impromptu speaking is also referred to as extemporaneous speaking, speaking off-the-cuff, speaking on the spot, and again, thinking on your feet, or crash and burn, depending on how well/poorly we do. I’m trying to find a better word or phrase for this kind of speaking; stay tuned.
For now, let’s work on improving our thinking process, knowing that our communication is an extension of our thinking.
Thinking more clearly will help us speak more clearly. Thinking more effectively will help us speak more effectively. Thinking more impressively will help us speak more impressively.
3 Ways to Think (and, and Communicate) More Effectively
1) Think in Complete Sentences
Do you ever listen to your own internal self-talk? Is your internal monologue disconnected and jumpy? If so, your communication is probably disconnected and jumpy too. Make yourself think in complete sentences. Thinking in complete sentences may be a bit more difficult for people who are primarily visual; they think in images or feelings and not as much in words. But learn to listen to your own internal monologue and practice completing the thought; not being disconnected. Your speaking will improve as you do that. Writing frequently can also improve this ability to think in complete sentences.
2) Improve Your Vocabulary
This one is tricky. I used to read a Word Power book thinking that by using big words, I would impress other people, perhaps appear more intelligent. A good friend and teacher pointed out to me that a lot of people did not understand me. He knew I wasn’t trying to be condescending to people. A lot of those words I used were a normal part of my vocabulary and I used them intentionally, but other people did not know what they meant. Being understood is much more important than having an expansive vocabulary.
So when I suggest that we improve our vocabulary, I mean that we use the right word at the right time. In high school, I had a friend who was a foreign exchange student who lived with my family. A few times when we saw a very tall guy, he would say, “Wow, he is really long!” Our friend couldn’t understand why we would start laughing hysterically. Use the right word at the right time. Look up dictionary definitions to understand what the slight differences are between synonyms.
3) Think with More Similes and Metaphors
When you think a thought, try to identify a comparison of it to a real world object, event, or process. Abstractions (ideas that don’t relate to something real or concrete) are hard to remember and even more difficult to communicate to other people. The best teachers and communicators relate ideas to solid objects and events around them. You need to think in these types of metaphors before you can communicate with them.
Here are a few examples of taking an idea and giving it a more concrete, realistic form people can visualize, understand, and remember:
- “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” – Albert Einsten
- “Dying is a wild night and a new road.” – Emily Dickinson
- “What am I? Some kind of barnacle on the dinghy of life?” – Popeye (Robin Williams)
Thinking effectively on our feet must come before speaking effectively on our feet. So, let’s work on improving our thinking as an important step in improving our communication skills