The minister was preoccupied with thoughts of how he was going to ask his congregation to come up with more money than they were expecting for repairs to the church building. On top of it all, he was annoyed to find that the regular organist was sick and a substitute had been brought in at the last minute. The substitute wanted to know what to play.

“Here’s a copy of the service,” said the minister, “but you will have to think of something to play after I make the announcement about the finances.”

At the end of the service, the minister paused and said, “Brothers and sisters, we are in great difficulty. The roof repairs cost twice as much as we expected. Any of you who can pledge $100 or more, please stand up.”

At that moment, the substitute organist played the “Star-Spangled Banner.” And that is how the substitute became the regular organist.

The ability to think on your feet like this organist and react to events without prior thought or planning is a critical life skill. Some of the best training I received on this was when my father encouraged me to join Toastmasters International many moons ago. You have to get up on your feet at a moment’s notice and talk about a subject for several minutes.

In business, you never know when you might be called on to lead a discussion or team meeting, respond to an inquiry, solve a problem, present a proposal or sell an idea.

The key to thinking on your feet is confidence. You can’t worry about what others think of you or how they perceive you. Prepare for every meeting. What are commonly asked questions? Rehearse for situations. Think of the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. You need to have working knowledge of the subject. Practice for what you think might happen.

Listen and pay attention to what is being said. Seek clarification if you don’t understand. One of the ways I do this is by repeating the question. This helps me make sure I understand the question, and it also buys me more time to prepare my response. It doesn’t hurt to say you need a moment to think about how to answer that great question.

Don’t be uncomfortable with a brief period of silence; rather use it to your advantage. It will convey that you are thinking and preparing a proper answer. Too many people rush to get their words out. Slow things down by pausing to collect your thoughts.

Another technique I like to use is storytelling. I often use humorous stories to drive home points. When I speak to corporate audiences, I divide my talks into lessons and wrap up each lesson with a humorous story. This engages people and captures their attention. Whether you have an audience of one or one thousand, storytelling can make a difference.

Get used to being put on the spot. You know it is going to happen, so do your best to anticipate what the other party is looking for. If you don’t know an answer, say so. Don’t add to the problem by making something up. You will look foolish.

Mackay’s Moral: The ability to think on your feet can prevent you from falling on your face.


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail