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Three Ways Admins Can Think on Their Feet

Three Ways Admins Can Think on Their Feet

There's nothing worse than getting on the elevator and realizing you're standing next to the boss with nothing to say for 11 floors or being in the middle of a breaking crisis and not knowing how to react.

“[Thinking on your feet is] definitely a learned skill, and most of us don't spend a lot of time learning it,” says Peter Spruyt, a Los Angeles-based actor and stand-up comic. “When I was in school, most of my classes involved learning and regurgitating material by rote. Since we have so little experience thinking on our feet, the thought of 'going off script' seems unfamiliar and a bit scary.”

But you don’t have to despair -- you can learn how to think on your feet. Here are three tips to make it easier that will also help you become a more effective communicator overall.

Focus on the Other Person

Deborah Gross is the assistant to three executives at, an online, on-demand document printing and distribution company in New York City. “Our office is on the eighth floor, and that elevator ride can be a brutal one,” Gross admits. “In these situations, I stay away from discussing the weather, because I feel that’s a sure sign that I’m uncomfortable. Plus, it’s so cliche.”

Instead, if it’s someone she knows, Gross asks about their family or hobbies. If it’s a stranger, she looks for something else. “You can tell them that there’s something on their jacket, so it puts the attention on them and looks like you’re trying to be helpful and very observant, detailed-oriented -- all very important qualities to have,” she says.

Be a Better Listener

It’s important to keep the conversation going, says Allison Heartinger Connor, an improvisational comedian and former admin in Dallas. You do that by listening carefully.

“So many people are thinking about what they're going to say next instead of listening to the person talking to them,” Connor explains. “Listening always helps your own thinking process. Consider what the person has said, and don't shut them down. In improv, it's all about saying, 'Yes, and...' -- never 'No, but...'”

Study the Art of Conversation

If even a little small talk makes you crazy, consider joining a group that focuses on public speaking, suggests Jennifer Lyall, founder of Liv Healthy, a health and wellness Web company in Toronto.

While working in marketing for an HR consulting firm, Lyall realized she was tongue-tied at all the wrong times. “I would turn beet red when called upon in a meeting and stumble over my words when I rode the elevator with the president,” she recalls. “The only way to get good at it is to build your confidence and practice, practice, practice.”

Lyall joined the local chapter of Toastmasters International, a group designed to help members develop public-speaking and leadership skills. “Every week, we practice our impromptu speaking skills in something called Table Topics,” she explains. “I've gone from dreading Table Topics to entering contests.”

Another option: Take an improv class. “As crazy as this sounds, an improv class for nonactors does wonders for building confidence and being comfortable speaking in front of others,” Gross says. “I started taking a class just to get over my shyness and now find that I have no problem giving my opinion, even when it’s not expected.”

The key, Spruyt says, is to keep working at it. “When it looks easy, it's usually because we've been doing it for years,” he says. “Very few of us were good at it when we started.”

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