Tips for handling a daily challenge: Impromptu speaking

Planning an elaborate presentation—clicker and PowerPoint slides at the ready—is one thing; you have time to prepare. Here’s how to be articulate and on point at a moment’s notice.

Impromptu speaking tips

You’re sitting in a meeting, and your boss calls on you in front of your colleagues.

Maybe you’re on a call, and your client asks you a crucial question you didn’t anticipate.

These are examples of impromptu speaking, and they happen just about every workday.

Speaking off the cuff is a different kind of skill from prepared speaking. However, it can be just as important as a prepared speech—perhaps even more so.

In many organizations, your higher-ups will assess your leadership readiness based in part on how you speak up during a meeting. When you don’t speak up, many people will assume you have nothing to say. Of course, that’s a false assumption, and for those who prefer not to speak in a meeting, you’re fighting a battle against those assumptions.

The challenge and the rewards

Every day, you can build trust with your colleagues or clients. How you communicate in those impromptu interactions—your confident voice, your conversational tone, your concise answer—builds trust.

Why is impromptu speaking so hard? One major cause of public speaking jitters is not having enough time to prepare. Impromptu speaking is, by definition, speaking without preparation. In addition, people don’t necessarily have a framework for handling impromptu speaking, so they simply say whatever is on their mind, for better or worse.

The good news is, there are frameworks for speaking off the cuff, and you can practice being in those situations:

Prepare for it. One executive, who was deathly afraid of public speaking early in her career, decided to make progress slowly. One step she took was to come to every meeting prepared with one or two points she would make. When she spoke up in the meetings, she sounded thoughtful, eloquent and spontaneous.

If you’re attending a meeting or conference, ask yourself: “What is my goal for this meeting, and what would I like to say? Jot down a few ideas, and practice them out loud. Talk through these ideas with a colleague who knows the context.

Practice it. Practicing impromptu speaking is one of the most entertaining parts of our workshops. We do improv exercises to help people think and laugh on their feet. Want to practice being unprepared? Partner up with a colleague and have them pepper you with questions and give feedback on your responses.

Be present. When you go to a conference, ask a question in nearly every session. It’s a way to deepen your knowledge and increase your networking contacts. As you sit in the audience, formulate a question. You might jot down a few notes; then, when the moderator asks for questions, raise your hand high.

Guidance from Toastmasters

A favorite framework for public speaking comes from Toastmasters International. It’s easy to learn and easy to use in nearly any professional or personal setting.

It’s called PREP, an acronym for: Point, Reason, Example, Point.

  • Point: Make one point. I believe that…
  • Reason: Provide an explanation of your belief. And the reason I believe that 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 believe…

Let’s look at an example of PREP in response to the question, How do you feel about living in a big city?

  • Point: I love living in a big city.
  • Reason: You can walk everywhere instead of driving.
  • Example: For example, last week I sold my car because my new office is a 30-minute walk from my apartment. I get fresh air every single day.
  • Point: That is why I love living in a big city.

Easy, right? You can use that framework for any subject, from talking about your favorite color to opining on multilateral trade negotiations.

Making a smooth pivot

You can also use a transition phrase to give yourself time to think of your answer. There are different types of transition phrases to guide your audience.

  • Summary: Thank you, I’d be happy to talk about my views on living in a big city.
  • Praise: You’ve raised an important point.
  • Redirect: Actually, let me tell you why I hate living in a big city.
  • Bridge: We’re not here to talk about cities, we’re here to talk about the urban/suburban divide in our country.

Here are two more points to keep in mind during impromptu speaking:

Develop an internal timer. When you speak off the cuff, pay attention to the passage of time. When we are unprepared, we tend to ramble as we continually 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 is why I believe” to restate your main point and quickly conclude.

Focus on one key message. When you speak off the cuff, you don’t have time to remember multiple points. Choose one key message, and deliver it with an example. You can add a counterpoint as well to demonstrate multiple sides of an issue, but stick to one main message.

Allison Shapira is the founder of Global Public Speaking.

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