Despite my reputation for on-demand sentence savvy, the unattractive truth is I am not naturally adept at thinking (or speaking) when caught by surprise. That does not stop people from asking my opinion as the “communication expert.” (And lack of feeling competent never stops me from answering.)
I have learned to sound intelligent, even when feeling incoherent. This my perception/their perception disconnect is common as I hear from other people who insist they came across as blathering idiots when in fact I heard them reply with something sensible. It’s the opposite of the Dunning Kruger effect at play as it’s the case of skilled people speaking of their area of expertise.
What a pity no one ever hears the exceptionally brilliant answers I always conjure after the opportunity is long gone. No one, except my family, who of course delight in hearing all the witticisms I should have shared.
In case you too have the problem of brain shut down when asked to speak up, I’m sharing an easy template for brain freeze moments and other occasions when you’re not prepared to speak.
This structure makes you sound intelligent no matter what and lessens your cognitive load as you only have to fill in the blanks. (Unless you tell them, people will never guess you’ve got this Mad Libs structure for responding.)
Stress is the reason your brain shuts down.
Acknowledge the anxiety as temporary and a natural next step and it begins to dissipate.
Instead of thinking, “Oh no, that dreaded anxiety is here” tell yourself “OK, anxiety is here let’s up pull out that communication template.” The template is known as “structure.”
Allow me to introduce you to my helpful friend, Structure!
When you speak or write in an organized fashion, it helps people to a) understand your message and b) remember that you have one.
That’s why your English teacher taught you the introduction, development and summary structure for your essays.
The secret success tip here is that a similar structure can make you sound really quite bright, even if you’re feeling dimwitted.
It’s simple: Problem, Solution, Benefits
You can actually use this in almost any scenario. Here are some examples:
Example 1 Mom says: [problem] Son, the problem with not making your bed every day, even though you’re going to sleep in it at night is that it irritates your mother and it messes up your mind.
[solution] What you need to do is to simply pull the comforter across the bed and this takes approximately 18 seconds.
[benefits] That way, your mother is easier to deal with and believe or not, research shows that people who make their beds every day are more successful overall.
Example 2 Fred is asked to give a solution to a new technical issue. Caught off guard, at first he has no idea what to say.
[problem] This is where you paraphrase the problem. This step both buys you time and allows you to reframe the problem to something you might know an answer to. And you verify that you are accurately understanding the problem at hand.
Your paraphrase starts, “If I understand correctly, what you want to know is x.”
Paraphrasing is the Swiss army knife of communication.
[solution] By now you have a potential solution, spit it out. “What we can do with x is y.”
[benefits] Now tell everyone why your solution will help the team, the department, your customers, or somebody. “Y not only solves x, but it’s cheaper/faster/easier than those other lame solutions and will make our team look better than ever.
Your proposed solution does not actually have to be revolutionary and news worthy. You may think it’s obvious, but it may seem brilliant to others.
A quote I love by CS Lewis: Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
But you are contributing to the solution by offering a concept or framework that will eventually lead to a good solution.
Other benefits to the problem/solution/benefit (PSB) structure:
- It works everywhere.
- No one realizes you’ve got this secret formula going on.
- You can teach your team members to use it when bringing problems to the table.
- This structure is organization and everything works better with some organization.
- It gives you something to focus on so that you’re not building that natural anxiety.
The next time you feel that “deer-in-the-headlights” moment, pull out that problem/solution/benefit structure and start paraphrasing. Don’t be surprised if people start asking your opinion more often.