In so many professional situations, your quick-wittedness can make or shake the positive impression others may be forming about  you. In fact, Milo Frank’s classic The 30-Second Sell posits that you have less than a minute to persuade others that you are worth listening to.

Whether it’s a meeting at which you are expressing your viewpoint or a promotional interview for a position you believe you deserve, you need to have your wits about you. Quick-wittedness, of course, is probably most needed in job interviews. Consider this: Some companies ask job applicants–minutes after they’ve entered the interview room–to design a full-page newspaper ad promoting themselves. Others have been known to ask tricky questions, such as “Are you intelligent?” followed by “How do you know?” You can respond to the unanticipated situation with aplomb by following a few general guidelines.


Before we turn to the tips, consider the Work-Out sessions Jack Welch instituted at General Electric. As demanding as the term suggests, participants in this forum-like setting get a mental workout. They are also allowed to take unnecessary work out of their jobs. And, they can work out problems together. A group is assembled from all parts of the organization. They are briefly addressed by the boss, who provide an agenda and then leaves the room. The group then divides into teams, with each subgroup tackling the basic problem(s) the boss outlined. They also consider factors surrounding it, as well as solutions that might be applied. On the third day, when the boss returns, presentations are made, revealing how the small group thought the problem could best be solved.

The boss, of course, has no idea of what has been discussed. All he or she knows as he sits in the front of the room, is that senior executives are there with him to watch as he reacts to various proposals being made. The boss can only agree to the proposal, or say “no,” or ask for more information by a certain date.” That’s it. Think about what impression she is creating if she rejects every proposal. If she accepts every one. If she asks for more time to think about every proposal presented.

Nerves may easily prevent the boss from responding in a manner that reflects managerial mental ability. Whether you are a manager in such a situation, or simply someone wishing to “hold his own” in a conversation, here are a few tips for overcoming nerves, no matter the metaphoric workout with which you may be dealing yourself.


When you need more time to formulate your thoughts, toss the question or comment back. One phrase you might use is this, “Could you elaborate on that a bit?” Or, “Could you tell me what you mean by ‘ _____’?” When appropriate, you might turn to others in the room and ask, “How do the rest of you feel?”

I once attended a class led by a famous, but aging, European screenwriter and film director. One of the wannabe script writers in the audience stood during the Q&A period, and asked a convoluted question that went something like this: “Can you explain why you use more men than women in your films and why you invariably use dark settings–both literally and figuratively–for most of your films? Further, I’d like to know why anarchy constantly appears as an underlying theme and why there are so few close-ups of the actors’ faces. Finally, could you share with us your tips for breaking into a male-dominated world and how women can do so without appearing to be a threat?”

The response was classic. The older woman graciously agreed to share her knowledge and experience. “My dear,” she said, “I would be happy to answer your questions. Now what was the first one?” Needless to say, the attention-hog couldn’t remember. She sputtered, “Oh, forget it!” and plopped back into her seat.


When asked that “Are you intelligent?” question, a friend of mine used the definition technique. “To me,” she said, quelling her nerves, “intelligence is knowledge and I know more today than I knew yesterday.” She got the job.


One of the most frequently asked questions, in both social and business settings, is “Tell me about yourself.” A  successful applicant I know responded to this anticipated question with a self-description she often uses: “I like to regard myself as a non-conforming conformist. By that I mean, I will conform to the company’s rules and regulations, policies and procedures without question. But if asked to do something I consider unethical, I will not conform.”


Years ago, when I wrote my first book, I had the good fortunate to interview a man who was in the business news on a daily basis back then. “The best thing you can do for your career,” Lee Iacocca advised, “is learn to think on your feet.” His words still ring true.