It’s an employee’s nightmare: You’re at your desk, working on a big project, when your boss walks in and asks for an update. Immediately, you panic. How can you sum up three weeks of intense work in just a few sentences? How can you possibly do it right there on the spot?
Our tendency in those moments is to cram: Worried we will forget something important, we try to fit as much information in as we can. As a result, we often sound rushed, disorganized and unclear.
In these moments, we tend to misjudge what our supervisor is asking for. The last thing he or she wants is a comprehensive report on every detail of the project. Who has the time? Instead, your boss is likely looking for one or two key pieces of information that will lead him or her to believe the project is on track. Your job is to keep it short and relevant — but how?
Here are three tips to help you give a clear, focused answer on the spot.
1. Listen First
Rather than jump to the answer, take the time to make sure you understand the question. It is just as important to make your listener feel heard as it is to give a good answer. Ask a clarifying question, and confirm that you understand what your supervisor wants to know.
For example, when your boss asks you for an update, you might ask whether there is a particular aspect of the project he or she is curious about. Most likely, you will learn more what’s behind the question and will be able to give a more helpful response. Bonus: This strategy also gives you a little extra time to think.
2. Determine Timing
Once you’ve clarified the question, decide whether you are able to provide an answer at that moment. Sometimes, it is better to delay your answer, especially if your boss is asking you to provide specific data that you have not yet pulled together.
There is nothing wrong with saying, “I understand you are looking for an update on our tracking progress. Would it be OK if pull together the numbers this morning and have an answer to you by this afternoon?” Then, keep your word.
3. Begin Your Answer With the Words “One of”
Often, the listener is not looking for specific data but, rather, an overall update on the project. It is often these types of requests that fill us with the most anxiety, because it feels like there is so much to say. We often make the mistake of trying to give too much information, which is more difficult for us and also leaves the listener feeling confused.
The next time you are asked to give an update on the spot, instead of summarizing, begin your sentence with the words “one of.” As in:
- One of the things I’m working this week is …
- One of the most important things I’m working on is …
- One of the most important new developments is …
- One of the things I’m most proud of is …
- One of the challenges we have right now is …
By starting with the words “one of,” you force your brain to focus on one thing, which is far easier — and far more effective — than trying to summarize a whole month’s worth of work on the spot. This approach lets your boss focus on just one piece of information (which is probably what he or she wants anyway). At the same time, it indicates that there are other things happening as well. Those two simple words show your decisiveness, focus and clarity.
While nerve-wracking, speaking on the spot can also be liberating. It is empowering to realize that you can say something clear, brief and relevant — without extensive preparation. The key is practice. Find opportunities in safe contexts to practice the “one of” technique. For example, suggest that your team start meetings by having each team member say one thing he or she is currently working on. Over time, briefing your boss on the spot will feel less like a daunting task and more like natural communication.