Impromptu speaking in business settings can be the most important and influential verbal communication you will ever undertake. This applies in face-to-face and virtual discussions; and internally as well as externally. However, I have seen too many people handle this poorly. They either don’t prepare sufficiently for the meeting (especially internally), or they may not speak up. It is all-too-easy to fall into the trap of thinking the agenda doesn’t involve you directly – but the talk may swing your way. Not making a worthwhile contribution, even with informal remarks, can cause executive management or clients to doubt your effectiveness, which may obstruct your career progress. (By the way, you can use nearly all the tips in this article in your personal situations as well, eg wedding celebrations, anniversaries, family and sports team gatherings, etc.)
Why is off-the-cuff speaking so hard? One major cause 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, the frameworks below show you how to speak off the cuff, and you can practice for those situations in your own time.
Another reason people don’t get better at speaking off-the-cuff or impromptu speaking is that they avoid the situation as much as possible, especially introverts. Well-known introvert Susan Cain, a successful author and speaker, advises to simply inhabit the role. In fact, many good actors inhabit the “larger stage” with great success; you would never know they are introverted by nature. These include Glenn Close, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Audrey Hepburn, Helen Hunt, Steve Martin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, and Meryl Streep. So, in some ways, speaking is a performance, and 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!
All people who hold a managerial or supervisory role are called on to speak on an impromptu or off-the-cuff basis. This happens even more frequently in times of remote work and hybrid meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Team leaders are obliged to think quickly on their feet – so to speak – due to the nature of remote contact and unexpected questions. (If your role is to manage or coordinate team meetings this article could help you: “7 tips for managing virtual team meetings.”)
Also, anyone in your team may need to use a structure as a guide to address people in situations as basic as a telephone conversation or a job interview. Team members are expected to speak up in their own team meetings as well in cross-collaboration meetings with people from other departments. Unless you have a flexible response or formula to use in these situations, you are likely to feel discomfort and look under pressure to others. Some examples:
Speaking spontaneously is a different skill from prepared speaking. However, it can be just as important as a prepared speech or presentation – possibly even more important.
During your career, executives 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.
Toastmasters International use a five-step formula for a successful impromptu speech:
When using the five-step formula, you can use these strategies as a guide: (1) Express an opinion. (2) Address cause and effect. (3) Break the topic into components. (4) Discuss the past, present and future. Advice: (1) Be confident. (2) Be brief. (3) Be sincere.
Another easy-to-learn and easy-to-use technique for nearly any professional setting is called PREP, which stands for: Point, Reason, Example, Point:
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?” by a staff member from another area during a collaborative meeting:
You can use that easy framework for any subject.
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:
Using the 5 Ws as a guide gives you instant structure to your speech, which allows you to organize your thoughts so your listeners can easily follow the sequence in your comments. The sequence below can actually be kept as it is, with ‘why’ as the start because it gives context to what you are saying. The ‘why’ point provides a logical ending people can relate to. It also can be the most important point:
For example, if you’re talking about a company anniversary celebration, you could say who founded the company, what its purpose is, what role it plays in the community, future plans, any other anniversary activities being held, and why it’s important.
This is useful for informal events such as informal industry gatherings, responding to a point in an executive meeting about an issue, talking at a collaborative team meeting about a non-agenda topic that needs a response, a team or company celebration, etc.
Storytelling is a powerful method of speaking and is an easy way of connecting with the audience. When having to speak when you aren’t prepared, begin small, then go to medium, and end large. Basically, talk about the event from an individual perspective, then a group, State, industry or national perspective, and end with the bigger picture.
If you are responding or following on from what someone else has been saying, you can start with a story to get their attention. For instance, you know the agenda of the meeting and you want to make some points. You can start by telling a relevant story that may precede the actual points you make, and will lead into the points/themes you want to make. Possible storytelling angles are:
1. Ask them to imagine
Openers actively engaging the audience’s imagination are effective. They invite partnership, togetherness, a shared journey. Try:
2. Make it personal to your experience
Setting your story as part of your personal experience works well. These invite your audience to share an aspect of your life, to trust and to identify with you. Consider these:
3. Ask a rhetorical question
If it fits the theme of what you will talk about you could also practice story telling setups based on rhetorical questions. Some examples are:
Use such stories to logically lead into your key points. You can write or rehearse some alternative stories before deciding which one would be the best fit for the group you are speaking to. You can signal the end of the story by pausing, or by changing your tone, body language or speaking rate. All of these signal the start of a new segment without you needing to say that.
If you are intent on improving your impromptu speaking, it is important that you practice. Described below are several ways using any of the above techniques. This kind of practice gives you more confidence. It will help you learn how to assemble your knowledge and thoughts on a topic at a moment’s notice – so you become more skillful at thinking on your feet. Try these practice tips to sharpen up your impromptu speaking skills:
You can practice this just for yourself, or you can call on a partner to participate – at home or anywhere else. Firstly, you or your partner/participants write at least a dozen random subjects on a separate slip of paper for each. Then fold the slips and put them all into a bowl. Give it a sufficient shake or mix with your hands so the slips are randomly spread in the bowl. You or someone else can draw the slips one at a time. You immediately have to stand and talk for a minute on that subject. Topics could be on anything, eg today’s news, the best car you have ever driven, the best boss you have ever had, your favorite beverage, your computer, toast, jam, diets, chairs, sport, keeping fit, favorite hobby, etc. As an easier option, you could decide to nominate workplace topics instead of random ones.
Another option that simulates a team meeting, either in-person or WFH, is the linkage technique of impromptu speaking. If you are in a team of peers, you could arrange for one team member to start talking about a particular broad topic. Probably a business topic would suit. The team leader or a specified person then rings a bell after a certain agreed time, like one minute, and another designated team member must continue the story/talk. The more practice the better.
A great way to prepare for improvised speaking is to practice mentally for these situations. When you are in a meeting, keep asking yourself what you would say now if you were called upon. How would you structure a statement or response? What aspect of a topic would be most appropriate to cover at this time? How would you phrase your approval or rejection of proposals currently being made?
If you are practicing alone, time yourself and record your speech on your smartphone, iPad etc to play back. When you play it back, listen for smooth flow, structure and content. These all combine to create the overall impact of your speech. We are our own toughest critic, so don’t get disheartened and too critical of yourself when you hear the recording. You can even position the recording device such as a smartphone, iPad to see yourself. You will find a little practice with hearing and vision will improve your response dramatically! Practice will make you feel more 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.
Another way to practice speaking up is to get a colleague to ask you rapid questions, and give you feedback on your responses. With this 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.
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 questions 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, and practice speaking them out loud so you can readily make your points at the meeting.
If you are asked in a meeting to comment on something, try to take a deep breath before you start to talk. 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!)
Obviously if you want to make a spontaneous point during a meeting, you won’t have time to pause and take a deep breath. However, you can at least say something like, “I want to comment on this point” or “I want to draw your attention to an emerging issue this potential decision will create” etc. This pause will get their attention and give you some seconds of thinking time as well as taking a subtle deep breath.
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’ve been rambling, use “That’s why I believe…” to restate your main point, and quickly conclude.
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.
Don’t try to think as you go. Make a few bullet point notes and think of transitions from one point to the next.
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.
If you or someone you know needs some practice and guidance on impromptu speaking, you can consider using specialized training for this. VirtualSpeech uses a virtual reality (VR) education platform for soft skills training on communication skills such as public speaking, sales, and leadership. The firm uses VR to simulate various sized audiences and distractions, which is an effective way to practice public speaking and build skills and confidence for the real world. The thought of impromptu speeches can be overwhelming. You don’t know what the topic will be, and often you don’t know much about the audience you’ll be facing. However, virtual reality gives you an opportunity to practice these types of speeches in a realistic environment.
You will need a good internet connection for the training, and you’ll also need either an Oculus Quest, Oculus Quest 2, Pico Neo or Vive Focus VR headset for 1-hour live training in VR. I don’t know cost of virtual training.
Image at right: virtualspeech.com
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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