Thinking on my feet – without tripping

As I drove back to my office after the Toastmasters meeting this afternoon, I wondered whether doing Table Topics really improves my ability to give impromptu speeches. The question I got today was “In five words or less, what would you want to put on a button to wear?”

I came up with something to say, about wearing a smiley button that says “Have a great day!” (My main point was that since I tend to walk around looking serious, the button would spread cheer for me.) And as I was speaking, I was aware of remembering to use facial expressions, vocal variety, and gestures. But I think I have gained that from doing prepared speeches, not from Table Topics.

I’ve never been good at thinking fast. I’m sure that’s a large part of my preference for written communication over talking in person or on the phone (aside from being an introvert who likes to be alone). When I’m writing, I can think about what I want to say before I start writing, revise constantly as I write, and do some more editing when I have my thoughts all written out.

When I’m speaking, I get limited time to think before I start speaking. (And if I do my thinking while the other person is talking, I may miss something important and respond to the wrong question or idea.) I can do very little thinking about what I’m saying as I say it, unless the other person is very good about helping me put my thoughts together. And any changes I try to make afterward are merely damage control.

I’ve always pretty much figured that’s the way I am, someone who doesn’t think well on my feet. Of course, I used to think I was someone who wasn’t any much good at public speaking, and now I know that with practice I’m definitely improving. Is it possible, I wondered, to improve my ability to think on my feet?

I did some internet searches, and found lots of material. Most of it, however, doesn’t seem to really deal with thinking faster, but rather with giving one more time to think, plus shaping people’s perceptions of one’s ability to be eloquent on short notice.

Many of the suggestions have to do with techniques to buy time. You can ask to have a question repeated. You can use a stock phrase as an intro to your first statement – it doesn’t say much but lets you start talking while still thinking. You can feel free to pause, giving yourself time to think of your next words while the audience thinks about the ones you just said.

Others have to do with mental preparation you can do. If you know what topics you are comfortable talking about, or ideas that you are passionate about, you can plan to use whatever you are given to start with as a springboard for what you really want to talk about. You can also have in mind some simple structures for a speech (e.g. pros and cons, past/present/future, problem and solution).

But all of those ideas seem to deal with using your ideas more effectively, not actually coming up with more or better ideas on the spot. For many situations, those techniques will work well, and I plan to use them as I work at becoming a better speaker. (Even before I read these suggestions, I discovered I had used one today, when I went with my very first thought in response to the table topics question, rather than stand there trying to think of something better.)

But maybe there are ways to improve my ability to think on my feet. I recently discovered, in the Wii Sports program, there is a training section so I can learn better techniques for playing tennis, rather than just trying to do better by playing over and over. When I learned to play violin, there were exercises that helped me develop technique. Are there exercises to help me think faster?

Not long ago I blogged about Lumosity and their games to improve the brain. I’ve played Word Bubbles so many times that it’s hard to improve much on my best scores, but I question whether it really improves my verbal fluency. I can quickly think of dozens of words that start with certain three-letter combinations, but that is pulling words out of my brain’s filing cabinet based on spelling, not meaning.

I looked at one website that talks about how our brains work by pulling out thoughts that are associated with a trigger word. One word can evoke memories, quotations that use the word, facts related to that word, and more. If I say the word “fire,” for instance, you might think of a cozy evening in front of a fireplace, a devastating house fire, losing a job, firing a gun, a painful burn, “Stop, drop, and roll,” and much more.

If I were standing in front of an audience right now, however, instead of sitting calmly at a computer, I would probably not have thought of even that many associations. Under stress, the brain simply does not work as well. A lot of the advice I read about “thinking on your feet” had to do with being able to relax. If I can reduce the stress level, I can let my brain do what it normally does well.

I’ve never been good at relaxing, however. Early in our marriage, my husband was going to give me singing lessons and I was going to give him Spanish lessons. Our singing lessons, however, never got further than trying to get me to relax my jaw. Even when I’m asleep I don’t relax very well, which is why I’m supposed to wear a plastic guard to keep my teeth from grinding together. (Unfortunately our dog has chewed up two of them, and I haven’t spent the money to purchase a third.)

Part of being able to relax when giving a speech is having confidence in one’s ability to do it well. When I give a prepared speech, I am confident, because I have practiced and I know I can give it well. When I played violin, I never felt all that confident because I knew I hadn’t practiced enough, either the music I was playing or the basic techniques. (With Wii tennis, I’m relaxed simply because I know the outcome doesn’t really matter – I’m playing for the exercise, not to win a championship.)

If there are techniques I can practice, similar to practicing tennis or violin, I’d like to figure out what they are. I don’t need to be able to give fantastic Table Topics speeches at Toastmasters. But I do need to be able to think well on my feet in many situations in life. This weekend, we’ll be travelling to Nebraska, where a church is considering my husband for their pulpit. There’s a whole lot of needing to “think on your feet” that goes with the major transitions of moving to a new home, new job, and new community.

But I don’t get a new brain. I just have to figure out how to use this one better.

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2 Responses to Thinking on my feet – without tripping

  1. modestypress says:

    I think you have a fine brain. I suspect you will do fine on this trip and with the interviews. Watch out, though; they may decide to hire you as the minister instead of your husband.

  2. Pauline says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, modestypress. I do have a fine brain, it just isn’t good at everything. You only know me from my writing. I am not nearly as good at expressing myself in spoken communication.

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