Speech! Speech! How to handle an impromptu speaking request

You received an 11th-hour plea to fill in for a speaker. Short of developing a case of laryngitis, what do you do?

The phone rings just after lunch, and a frantic voice on the other end of the line says: “Tonight’s speaker can’t make it. Can you please pinch-hit at 7 o’clock?”

You glance at the clock and gulp; then you agree to help out your colleague. You immediately clear your calendar for the afternoon. Instead of going into panic mode, you create a plan of attack.

Information overload

When you’re asked to speak on short notice (or on any occasion, for that matter), there’s no such thing as too much information. The more information you’ve got, the better. In your haste to start preparing, you might overlook important details. Use the following as a starting point of a pre-speech checklist.

  • The venue: How big is the room? What are the acoustics? What type of lighting is available? Will there be a podium? What audiovisual equipment is there? Is the microphone cordless? Do you have to bring a bottle of water? How early can you arrive to set up/do a sound check? Where are the restrooms? Exits? Is there Wi-Fi?
  • The audience: How many people are expected? Age range? Proportion of male to female? Education level?
  • The speech: Narrow the topic; get as specific as possible. Are there key areas on which you should focus? Any topics you should avoid? How much does the audience already know about this topic? How long should your speech be? Be sure that the emcee has your bio.

No need to reinvent the wheel

You’re doing them a favor by speaking at the last minute. Ask whether they can do you a favor in return. Perhaps there’s a related topic that you’re more comfortable addressing. See if there is any leeway in the subject matter. If so, tailor it toward a topic or facet of the specified subject matter about which you are more knowledgeable.

If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ve already spoken on this topic. As long as you’re addressing a new audience, repurpose your old speech.

Better yet, try to get a copy of the original speaker’s notes or actual speech. Though it might not be written in your particular style, you’ll be way ahead of the game and can tweak it to suit your own delivery (assuming that Speaker No. 1 is OK with this and that you give credit where credit is due).

Go low tech

Given the fact that you have a few hours (not days or weeks) to prep for the speech, put your efforts into the speech itself. Don’t worry about fancy visuals to accompany your speech.

Depending on your topic and your audience, you could enlist the help of audience members to incorporate a “technical” aspect into your presentation. Ask audience members to use their smartphones—or their laptops and tablets if Wi-Fi is available—to take a quick survey related to your topic, for instance. This also will engage the audience.

Be prepared

How can you be prepared for a speech you didn’t know you’d be giving? Be a hoarder. Be a voracious reader, and save any material you think will be of use later. This requires that you be organized as well.

Bookmark online resources, and arrange them in folders by topic. The same goes for emails. Create folders and sub-folders so that you can easily find material. Digital content is easily searchable, saving time and energy. If you save printed material, highlight words so that you can scan quickly.

Be a quick study

You obviously can’t be an expert on everything. When you must research a topic quickly, here are a few go-to resources:

Practice makes perfect

Make sure you allow time for practice. Because you’re doing this on the fly, you should create note cards for your speech (even if you usually speak off the cuff). Remember, you haven’t had weeks of preparation so the material is not ingrained into your memory.

What to avoid

You may be tempted to preface your speech with a disclaimer so that the audience will forgive any shortcomings in your speech. Don’t. If you give the audience a reason to doubt you, they will. Instead, stride to the podium with confidence.

Beware of the post-speech Q-and-A session. If at all possible, avoid it. You may be asked questions that you are not prepared to answer. If you have to fill time, change the format and call it a feedback session. Give audience members two minutes to share their opinion on the topic at hand.

Follow the steps outlined here, and you’ll never be left speech-less.

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