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News - The 4-step approach to thinking on the spot

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The 4-step approach to thinking on the spot

21st November 2017

The secret of thinking on the spot is to be prepared: learn some skills and tactics, and do some preparation for situations that might put you under pressure. Then when you do find yourself faced with unexpected questions and debate, you’ll be ready to compose your thoughts and prepare your response.

We suggest a four-step response.

Pause –> Clarify –> Theme –> 3 Point Answer

  1. Pause before you speak

The most common mistake is to jump straight in with an answer – without thinking first! Pause briefly before you respond. Take a second or so to consider:

  • What is this question about?
  • Is it a question you are able to answer now?
  • Is it a question you can answer at all?
  1. Clarify the question

If necessary, ask the questioner to clarify the question. Not only will this buy you a little more time it will also help you to focus your answer.

For example:

Manager:                      What do you think about the service we provide to our customers?

You:                             Is there anything in particular that you want to know?

Manager:                      Yes. I’m particularly interested in the way we deal with enquiries on the phone.

By asking for the question to be clarified it is now easier to give the questioner the information that he or she is looking for.

  1. Select a theme

Imagine that you’re in a job interview and the interviewers ask you to tell them about your education.

There are many ways in which you could answer this question.

By quickly choosing a theme, this will help you to structure your answer so it sounds comprehensive.

Here are 3 themes you might use:


You highlight benefits aimed at how your proposal will affect the listener for the better. You encourage them to accept your point of view or ides, buy your product, your expertise or skills etc. This is a selling theme. Offer 3 reasons, saving your best until last.


You spell out the consequences for NOT doing something. Sometimes known as the domino effect. This is the opposite of the benefits theme.


You focus in on just one specific aspect of the question and provide supporting information in your answer.

  1. Three Point Answer

Never speak beyond your listener’s level of interest!

A short answer is likely to be more memorable – and it’s easier for you. Giving just three points when you answer a question works very effectively.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most famous and influential quotes from history are structured in three parts. ‘Blood, sweat and tears’, ‘Mind, body and soul’, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. It’s all about the way we process information. We’ve all become skilled at pattern recognition by necessity, and three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern.

So, how can we link our theme and 3 point answer approach together?

Using our previous example, a candidate is applying for a job in a law firm and has been asked to talk about their education. Here is how each theme might be used to answer the question:


I have a law degree and this means I will be able to:

  • Learn this job very quickly.
  • Be useful to the firm straight away.


I am really glad that I studied law because without this I think that:

  • It would take me a lot longer to learn this job.
  • I’d find solicitors and the legal language they use intimidating.


I studied criminal law at university and learned about:

  • The jury system.
  • The magistrate’s court.

Having worked through the 4-step approach, what should you do next?

  • Ask the questioner whether the answer you gave was what they were looking for.
  • Ask whether they would like more information. If appropriate, give more information at the time or offer to send it on or perhaps arrange to meet to go through it in more detail.