Tips for impromptu speaking
- You have just joined a committee representing three business units from your organization, and the chair asks you to speak about a joint issue without notice.
- You are called into an executive meeting to update top management about an issue you are responsible for managing.
These are a couple of examples of off-the-cuff or impromptu speaking, which happen frequently in our business lives.
Speaking spontaneously is a different skill from prepared speaking. However, this can be just as important as a prepared speech or presentation – possibly even more important.
During your career, senior managers will evaluate your qualities partly on the contribution you make at meetings. If you don’t say anything, especially when others believe you have the knowledge that others should listen to, many people will assume you are short-changing yourself. They will under-estimate your abilities and view you in that light in future. They might think you are an introvert and therefore unlikely to go higher up the ladder of leadership.
Examples of impromptu speaking
- Your boss turns to you in a meeting and asks for a spur-of-the-moment update.
- You get called into a meeting to tell them the latest on an issue.
- You are asked an unexpected question while on a panel of speakers.
- You receive unexpected pushback on your ideas at a company meeting.
- You are asked on the spot to give a goodbye speech to a departing employee.
The challenge and the rewards
With a little preparation and practice, you can overcome the problem of not speaking up. If you handle your communication in those improvised interactions – your confident voice, your conversational tone, your concise answer – you will build trust from others.
Why is off-the-cuff speaking so hard? One major cause of not speaking up is not having enough time to prepare. People don’t necessarily have a framework for handling impromptu speaking, so they simply say whatever is on their mind, for better or worse.
Fortunately, there are frameworks for speaking off the cuff, and you can practice for those situations:
Practice speaking up
One reason people don’t get better at speaking off-the-cuff or impromptu speaking is that they avoid the situation as much as possible. But this is like any other skill – you get better at it by doing it. So don’t blend into the wallpaper at your next meeting; don’t wait to be asked to share your impromptu thoughts! Practice this important skill and you will communicate that you are proactive and engaged in your work – a pretty good combination.
The best way to deal with unexpected opportunities to speak up is to practice for those situations. Get together with a colleague and get them to ask you rapid questions, and give you feedback on your responses. Also, you can practice by stepping up to the mic to ask a question at a conference.
Practice the techniques noted below so you can feel comfortable about speaking on the spot. You can think of questions relating to your business discipline, and you can also find lists of general topics to use for practice.
If an emailed notice of a meeting has been given, including the agenda items, make a note of a question or a point you could raise in almost every item, or at least the main ones (without becoming tiresome!). This is an opportunity to ask sensible question that increase your knowledge and smarten up your interactions with others – in a positive way. You could even use such questions in a facilitation mode – you ask the person speaking on an issue enough follow-up questions that they can think through the answer to their own problem.
If you’re due to attend a meeting about a particular issue, and an agenda paper has not been provided, ask yourself: “What is my goal for this meeting, and what would I like to say? Jot down a few ideas down, and practice speaking them out loud so you can readily speak up at the meeting.
Tips for planned speaking
1. Toastmasters technique
Toastmasters International use a technique that is easy to learn and easy to use in nearly any professional setting.
It’s called PREP, which stands for: Point, Reason, Example, Point.
- Point: Make one point. “I have found most reporters…”
- Reason: Provide an explanation of your point. “And the reason I think that many reporters do this is because…”
- Example: Tell a story or anecdote that illustrates that point. For example, “Just last week…”
- Point: Conclude by restating your point. “And that is why I think that…”
Here’s an example of PREP in response to the question, “What is the best time of day to pitch a story to a reporter?”
- Point: “The time of day affects the receptiveness of a reporter to your call.”
- Reason: “They are busy in late afternoons in meeting their publishing deadlines.”
- Example: “For example, recently when I have tried to reach one of my regular contacts, Ben Smith, at the daily newspaper, he said he generally isn’t available in late afternoons due to looming deadlines.”
- Point: “That’s why I avoid contacting daily newspaper reporters during the afternoon.”
You can use that easy framework for any subject. Joining your local Toastmasters group will give you plenty of practice with impromptu speaking.
2. Make a smooth pivot
You can also use a transition phrase to give yourself time to think of an answer or to think of a response angle to the question that suits you better. Here’s are some transition phrases to guide your audience:
- Summary: “Thank you, I’d be happy to talk about pitching story angles to our daily newspaper.”
- Praise: “You’ve raised an important point.”
- Redirect: “Actually, let me tell you why I don’t bother pitching stories anymore.”
- Bridge: “In dealing with reporters I believe the key is the quality of the story angles we put to them.”
3. Past, present, future
- “In the past, the solution to this problem was to…”
- “Now [at present], we are dealing with the problem in this way…”
- “In the future, it is likely we will be able to use technology to…”
4. Cause, effect, remedy
- “The cause of this current problem is…”
- “The effect [impact] of the problem is…”
- “The remedy [solution] for the problem is…”
You can even add in a 4th bullet point as “And the benefits are…”
5. Prepare your opening and ending
Having planned the structure of your comments, you can focus on the start and end. For instance, you can write/say the following, using the past, present, future option:
Thank you for asking me to speak to you about [the problem]. To put this in context, I’m going to take you through the journey that is happening. Firstly, we will go back in time to see how it started, then we will consider the current situation, and lastly we will move forward to consider what future solutions might be available.”
6. Connections with listeners
Focus on what listeners want and need to know, rather than on yourself. When asked to speak, one technique you could use is to strive for a warm, emotional connection by imagining a string connecting you to each listener in the room. Strive to make the strings taut with excitement and positive energy.
Dale Carnegie, famous author on public speaking and presentations, suggested three ways of beginning your comments, “Audiences are interested in themselves and what they are doing.” This gives you the cue to talk about individual members of your audience, whether they are members of a committee, a team, or another type of group, to use as examples. “Talk about your listeners, who they are and what they are doing…Use a specific example.” Look at the connections you can make.
In his book, The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, Carnegie suggests the second source from which you can draw angles to start your impromptu talk, is the occasion. You can refer to the reason for the meeting in your impromptu remarks.
The third source of ideas to include in your comments, suggested by Carnegie, is something specific another speaker said before you – and to amplify that. Try to condense your ideas into a few words. Say what you have in mind as plainly as you can. Give your views briefly, and finish there.
Tips for unplanned speaking
1. Take your time to begin
Take a deep breath. Don’t make the mistake of starting to speak before you have gathered your thoughts. In most cases you can’t ask for a 5-minute recess while you get your act together, but a deep breath gives you a few moments to think and calm down. This makes you appear more in control of the situation. The pause lets people see that you really heard the question and are considering it carefully. Take a deep breath and think about your strategy. Look around the room. Make eye contact with 1-2 others in the meeting. (But don’t breathe too obviously, or they will see you are nervous!) Also, treat your anxiety as a normal response and tell yourself, “I’m excited (but not scared).”
2. Learn to keep tight track of time
Your audience is much more likely to listen if you stick to your points and don’t ramble. When you speak off the cuff, pay attention to the time you are taking up. Many people tend to ramble when they are unprepared, as they try to think of better ways to say the same thing. Develop an internal timer so you become aware of when you’ve been talking too long. If you feel you’ve been rambling, use “That’s why I believe…” to restate your main point, and quickly conclude.
3. Focus on one key message
When you speak off the cuff, you don’t have time to remember several points. And you water down your message by taking on too many points. Just select one key message, and deliver it with an example. You can add a counterpoint as well to demonstrate other sides of an issue, but stick to one key message.
4. Write bullet point notes if you have some time to prepare
Don’t try to think as you go. Make a few bullet point notes and think of transitions from one point to the next.
5. Ask for questions
As your comments will be short, you don’t want to be interrupted, so tell the audience you will be pleased to answer questions when you finish.