Many of my executive coaching clients have been put in high-pressure situations where they have been asked to think on their feet, often in front of a boss or a group of high-level stakeholders.

These situations can range from defending a course of action, influencing buy-in from a senior leader, negotiation with a customer or participating in a highly charged question-and-answer session.

Here are my techniques for helping you get through high-stakes impromptu situations with professionalism and poise:

Use a pause to your advantage. Take a moment to collect your thoughts before responding. Ask yourself, “What is my opinion? Why do I think that? What evidence, experience, facts or data do I have to support my point of view?” Then, in your response, be sure to include the reasons. They will give you credibility.

Employ hyper-focus. Listen to what is being said by focusing intently on each word. Sometimes the pressure mentally floods us. If this happens, look directly at the other person and ask for clarity. You want to be sure you are understanding and answering with the right information.

Maintain professionalism. Keep your composure with confident posture and poise. Avoid appearing defensive by reverting to these non-verbal behaviors: lack of eye contact, furrowed brow, cowering shoulders, fidgeting, arm crossing, finger tapping or wagging feet.

Repeat the question. Not only will this give you a bit more time to prepare your response, but you also can paraphrase a poorly worded question, making it a more constructive one. For example, if someone asks, “Why do you think you are an expert?”, you can respond by saying, “What experience and expertise do I have?” You’re more likely to formulate a better answer to a more positive question.

Breathe. It sounds so simple, but it works. Breathing changes your body’s physiology and relaxes your natural “fight or flight” response so you remain calm and attentive.

Be concise. In your response, too many words can confuse others, so avoid rambling. A good way to practice this is by getting to the point quickly whenever you leave voice messages for people.

“I don't know” is OK. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s best to acknowledge it. But put a positive spin on your response, such as “My research didn’t cover that area. That’s something I’ll need to look into.” Most importantly, let your questioner know you will get back to him or her with the answer or more information.

Conclude strongly. Be clear when you are finished by using words such as “in conclusion” or “in summary,” then give a slight recap of your answer. This will show you as a self-assured and professional communicator.

Follow these simple techniques to become more confident and effective in speaking on your feet when in high-pressure situations.

Pam Solberg-Tapper, president of Coach for Success Inc., is a Duluth-based executive coach, professional speaker and adventure marathoner. For questions or to submit questions or ideas for future columns, please contact her at or 218-729-0772.