Unanticipated questions, unanticipated situations can be banes or boons, depending on your ability to respond quickly. In fact, Milo Frank maintains in The Thirty-Second Sell that we often are given less than a minute to make a point or to create a good impression. For example, there are companies that ask job applicants to design a full-page newspaper ad, promoting themselves, instead of answering typical interview questions. Other firms 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.


At the height of his championship career, Muhammed Ali boarded a plane and seated himself in the first-class section. Not long afterwards, the stewardess approached him and advised they would be taking off soon and that he would have to buckle his seat belt. With typical bravado, the great one announced, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.”

The stewardess probably formulated a mental image of Superman, an image that gave her an insight she shared, “Well, Superman don’t need no airplane either,” she asserted. “Now buckle up!”


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.


  • Dr. Marlene Caroselli is the author of 60+ books, the most recent of which ("Applying Mr. Einstein") will be released by HRD Press in 2020. You can reach her at [email protected].