An impromptu speech is quite simply a speech that you have to make when you haven’t prepared. Most of us don’t think or worry about giving impromptu speeches until we’ve been put on the spot — and by then, it’s too late. Consider these scenarios where you may (or have already) find yourself needing to speak off the cuff:
- The scheduled speaker is unavailable, and you’ve been asked to fill in.
- You are sitting on a panel answering questions from the audience.
- You are fielding questions after your own talk (a Q&A session can certainly be considered impromptu speaking)
- You are being interviewed on television, radio, webinar, or telephone.
- You are invited (at the last moment) to say a few words at a company gathering or business meeting.
- You are asked to provide a brief status report for your project at a department meeting.
- You decide or are asked to give an unplanned toast at an event with family or friends.
My goal with this blog post is not to guide you into making a stirring, memorable speech that will inspire the generations (given that an impromptu speech is unexpected, and because it will likely only last a few minutes). My goal is simply to help you develop the skills you need to give a quality, well structured, simple and effective speech. Any subsequent accolades beyond this are just the gravy on top.
We don’t all start out with an amazing skill for impromptu speaking. Most of us start by failing a few times and improving once we have learnt from our experience. Don’t sweat about making mistakes early on, it’s expected. My first experience with impromptu speaking did not go down well at all. Conveniently, it was at a Toastmasters session so the group were very supportive and offered constructive advice to help me improve. I vividly remember how I felt and my actions on the day however, I have no recollection of the topic I was asked to speak on or even what I said. All I recall is my mind going blank, fumbling out the first words that came to mind, whether they made sense or not, and eventually sitting down in defeat. Needless to say, if it wasn’t for the support of my peers, I would have quit trying right there and then (well… maybe). My advice is, while it may be very hard at first, and you will certainly make mistakes, it does get easier. All you need is a good strategy, and I give that to you one of those here.
The advice that I am providing in this post is based on information that I gained from reading Trevor Poulin’s excellent book Impromptu Speaking: Your Name Has Been Called, It’s Your Turn to Speak, What Do You Say? Many of the skills that I have developed have been based on the fantastic strategies and tips provided by this book.
It’s also worth noting that, in general, the better you are at giving prepared speeches, the more often you will be invited to speak with little time available for preparation. Your friends and colleagues will recognise your passion for public speaking, and when they need someone to say a few words, they’ll immediately think of you! So the sooner you develop your impromptu speaking skills, the better.
Strategies for Giving Great Impromptu Speeches
Although you may only have a few seconds to prepare for any particular impromptu situation, you can certainly take steps now to ensure you are as ready as possible when you are eventually called upon:
Anticipate situations where you may be called upon to speak. Here are some examples:
- You are attending an engagement party for a close friend or family member, there’s a reasonable chance that you will be asked to speak.
- If one of your close colleagues is scheduled to speak (e.g. your boss, your peer, or your report), it’s also reasonable to assume that you will find yourself speaking.
As you head to the event or meeting, do a few mental exercises, trying to predict what you might be asked to speak about, and consider what your response would be. Even if your prediction isn’t correct, it’s amazing how those prior thoughts make it easier for you to think on your feet should you be asked to speak.
I recommend that you construct your impromptu speech around a simple framework. If you practice this a few times, you will find that your impromptu speeches become much more polished and coherent. I’ve described some useful frameworks in the following paragraphs. This is not a complete list however I have found all of these useful in the recent past.
P.R.E.P. (Point – Reason – Example – Point)
Start off by clearly stating your point. Share the primary reason (or reasons, if you have the time or more than one). The second step is to share an example (refer to my recent blog post for tips on telling stories) where your main point or reason is supported. Finally, conclude by summarising your central point again. The template works well in a wide variety of situations, and is easily adapted.
Issue – Pros vs. Cons – Conclusions
Start off by framing the issue. Talk about the benefits or positives, and then talk about the drawbacks or negatives. Conclude with your recommendation, range recommendations or solutions to the problem at hand. This is a technique used my many professionals and if you watch some high powered executives talking, you’ll certainly see this framework used on a regular basis.
The 5 Ws
In this pattern, you cover your topic by addressing the Who, What, When, Where, and Why elements. For example, if you’ve been asked to speak briefly about a new start up venture, you could talk about who started it, and who is helping to kick off the project; what the initial goals or targets are; when it started, and the schedule for the future for achieving the goals and/ or targets; where the project takes place; and why are you involved. This template works nicely, largely because the “why?” comes last and is often the most critical information which in turn becomes your concluding statement.
Impress your audience by leading the perfect Q&A session.
For lengthier impromptu speeches it is recommended that you turn your impromptu session into a Q&A session. This may be required in situations where you are asked to fill in when the scheduled speaker is absent. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to, and to be honest it really isn’t recommended that you launch into a 45 minute impromptu speech. Even the most accomplished speakers are prone to meander in that situation. Instead, reframe the session as a Q&A session, which breaks it up into a series of very small impromptu speeches that are probably easier for you to answer individually. Plus, the content comes directly from the audience, so you are guaranteed to deliver what they are seeking. They’ll probably even thank you for it afterwards.
Use personal stories
Storytelling is an essential skill for prepared speaking, but it is equally useful for impromptu speaking as well. Stories are emotional, real, and interesting. If you stick to personal stories, you’ll find that it is much easier to speak (even without any preparation) for the simple fact that the events happened to you.
Avoid the tendency to ramble. Craft a coherent message, and then be silent. Rambling on will only weaken your overall speech. If you must fill more time, shift into a Q&A as described above.
Go easy on yourself. We all want to speak perfectly every time, but demanding perfection from yourself in an impromptu speech is setting the bar too high. The audience will more often than no recognise that you’ve been thrown in at the last minute, and they will very understanding.
Most importantly, try to enjoy the challenge. Winning an audience over without a prepared speech in hand can be a real thrill when you are comfortable using a strategy or framework that works for the situation and for you.
For more information take a look at Trevor Poulin’s great book on this topic; Impromptu Speaking: Your Name Has Been Called, It’s Your Turn to Speak, What Do You Say? and please leave your questions or feedback in the comment section below.
Want to learn more about public speaking? Take a look at my other blog posts such as Lessons in Public Speaking from Game of Thrones or Using Virtual Reality to Cure Your Fear of Public Speaking.