Looking for the best way to deliver an effective impromptu speech? You will want to master two components. First, you want to reduce your nervousness so your audience sees your response as credible. Then, you want to deliver a credible response so your audience sees you as the expert.
If you are new to public speaking, an impromptu speech is one where you have to speak on short notice. So you won’t have a lot of preparation time. Even seasoned speakers can panic when asked to deliver one of these “spur of the moment” presentations. It makes sense. When we train new speakers, we tell them to organize their thoughts and practice the speech a few times. When someone puts you on the spot and askes you to speak, you can’t do any of these things. There are no note cards. So, impromptu speaking is a solid speaking skill. The better you get at this, the better a speaker your audience will see you as.
In the session, we are going to cover two parts of speaking off the cuff. First, we are going to talk about how to reduce nervousness when someone puts you under pressure. Then the second part is a simple structure you can use to design a compelling speech focused on a single main point. This structure will work in almost every impromptu speaking situation. (We will also give you a couple of concrete examples of how to use the structure.)
How to Reduce Public Speaking Fear When Delivering Impromptu Speeches.
Let’s start with the more difficult part, though. When someone puts us on the spot, panic can sit in. When we get nervous, we will not think as clearly. So, these tips can help you clear your head. A great speaker will not allow his or her audience to see them sweat.
Step 1, Realize that Many Impromptu Speeches Aren’t Impromptu at All.
“But I never was happy, never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.” — Mark Twain
Often, just being more proactive versus reactive can help reduce nervousness in impromptu situations. Before you go into a meeting, anticipate what questions might be asked of you. Organize your thoughts around how you might respond if the question is asked. Here are a couple of examples.
Before you go to a staff meeting, try to figure out what the discussion will be about in the meeting. What is going on in the company right now? What are the most important things that will be covered? How can you participate in the discussion and add value? By answering these questions, you will be a step ahead of most others in the meeting. (They likely wouldn’t have taken the time to even think about them.)
A few years ago, I was coaching a team that was delivering a high-level sales presentation. The buyers gave the team 45 minutes for their presentation. Then, they added a 15-minute question-and-answer session at the end. The buyers were, in essence, a panel of judges that could ask any question.
The team and I spent the better part of two hours brainstorming possible questions that would be asked. We put all of these questions down on a piece of paper. Then, one by one, we used the structure below to answer each in a compelling way. We ended up with over 30 questions along with a great answer for each.
The team leader made a series of index cards — one for each question. Then, she gave each index card to the person who would answer each of the questions based on their expertise. Each team member ended up with five or six questions. The technique worked beautifully. After practicing each answer a few times, they no longer needed the notecards. The impromptu speaking was not impromptu at all.
Step 2: Take a Deep Breath.
Many of the symptoms of public speaking fear can be reduced (at least a little) by taking a deep breath. When put under pressure, a public speaker can sometimes panic. Your heart can start beating very quickly. This is what causes the sweating and fuzzy thoughts. When you start to feel these things, just pause. Take a deep breath. Immediately, your heart rate will start to slow down to a more normal speed.
When you do this, the symptoms will start to diminish a little. Often, that is all you will need to begin to establish effective clear thoughts.
Step 3: You Don’t Have to Respond Quickly. Pause and Clarify Your Answer.
Too often, a speaker may blurt something out in haste that he or she will later request. Keep in mind that you don’t have to respond right away. In fact, I will sometimes pause and say, “Hhmmm, let me think about that,” before I answer. I would prefer to deliver a well-thought-out answer than a fast answer.
Sometimes, that little pause will allow you to come up with a very compelling response. It also gives you a chance to do the next tip…
Step 4: Think of a Story or Example that You Can Use in Your Impromptu Response.
Stories from your own personal experience are magical in presentations. They help you build trust and rapport with your audience. However, the main reason to use a story in an impromptu situation is that stories reduce nervousness dramatically.
Basically, when you recall an incident — a moment in time — related to the topic, you will begin to play a video in your head of the memory. All you really have to do is describe to the audience what you are seeing in the mental movie.
To recall a story based on a topic, just ask yourself, “Why do I believe what I believe about this topic? Where did this belief come from?” Asking questions like this will often elicit a memory of the topic. Once you have an incident in mind, just relay the details to your audience.
One of the “magic” things that stories and examples from your personal experience do is take away arguments. If I give you my opinion, it is easy for you to counter with an opinion of your own. However, if I give you an example from my experience, you can’t really argue with me. I mean I was there and you weren’t. So when you add these examples into your responses, not only do you reduce nervousness, but you also often look around the room and see people nodding in agreement.
Step 5: Practice Your Impromptu Speaking Skills.
Once you understand the concepts that we cover in this session, look for ways to practice your skill. Public speaking is a skill, just like any other. The more you do it, the more comfortable you get doing it. An easy way to practice this skill is in business meetings. For instance, good impromptu speakers practice the skill in group discussions. The next time you participate in a staff meeting or class, look for an opportunity to participate in the discussion.
I promise you that the first time you do this will be terrifying. However, immediately after you finish, you will feel elated. The main thing to remember is that your nervousness will peak just before you open your mouth. If you begin to respond effectively (especially if you start with a concrete example,) your nervousness will begin to go down immediately.
By the way, Toastmasters International is another way to practice impromptu speaking. Each Toastmasters Club begins with a session called “Table Topics.” A topic master will throw out a random topic (mostly about current events) and then call on participants to stand and speak. The method is a little contrived. However, if you go for eight straight weeks, you will have delivered eight straight impromptu speeches. That is a solid amount of practice time to help you get started.
The Most Effective Way to Deliver an Impromptu Speech
So what happens if an audience member throws an unexpected question to you? The important thing to remember is to not panic. Another important thing to remember is how powerful a story or example can be. Try this simple step-by-step process to quickly design a short impromptu speech.
Start Your Off-the-Cuff Remark with an Example or Story.
Remember that the faster you start telling a story, the faster you will reduce nervousness. (You will also sound very professional.) The story doesn’t have to be long or really detailed. The most important thing is that you want your audience to begin to picture the incident in their minds.
To come up with your example, try this trick. Think to yourself, “That reminds me of the time…” The human brain is a fantastic hard drive that stores every experience from your life. This phrase works like a search engine to find a good example.
I’ll give you a few examples to show you how this technique works.
- Every muscle in my body hurt. (Read the phrase and just think, “That reminds me of the time.”)
- Make sure to proofread your work.” (Read the phrase and just think, “That reminds me of the time.”)
- An unrealistic and illogical response to the Coronavirus pandemic.” (Read the phrase and just think, “That reminds me of the time.”)
There is a good chance that as you thought the magic phrase, an image of a memory formed in your head. If the memory didn’t come right away, try the phrase, “When was the last time every muscle in my body hurt?” Keep asking yourself until the image pops in your head.
Let’s try another…
Hopefully, this one came a little quicker. The more that you experiment with this important skill, the easier the answers will come to you.
Let’s try one that you might get from a Toastmasters Table Topic.
Because this one is based on a current event (at the time we wrote this,) it may be a little harder to get to the memory. Just like before, though, keep asking questions until the image appears in your head.
Tell Your Audience the Moral of the Impromptu Speaking Story.
Although the story has a magical component, if you just tell the story, your audience will think, “Uh, what is your point.” Instead, finish your story by telling them your point. The following phrases work really well.
- The moral of the story is…
- My point is…
- So, the reason I’m sharing that story with you is…
Then make your point.
This part of the impromptu speaking technique is really important. Most presenters will field a hostile question from the audience and just answer the question. That is a trap. If you answer the question really well, the person asking the question will likely just follow up with a more hostile follow-up question.
However, if you start with an example, the hostile person will take a short mental trip into your experience. He or she may actually start nodding in agreement. The example is very compelling. So now when you finish with your opinion, the questioner is less likely to argue with you.
Finish with a Way that the Audience with Benefit from Your Advice.
So in the previous step, we told the audience what we want them to believe or do. Keep in mind that human beings are pretty self-centered. The common response will be, “Why?” They want to know “What’s in this for me?” So finish your impromptu speech by telling them how they will benefit.
For instance, going into the previous example about proofreading, a good response might be the following:
(Start with a Story: Proofreading? That reminds me of the time…) A few weeks ago, a client asked me to create a synopsis of a custom workshop we were creating for them. It was late in the day, so I quickly jotted down a couple of paragraphs for her. I read through it once to make sure that the content was accurate and sent it over to her. A month later, she sent me a copy of the invitation that was sent to her group. The last sentence had a typo.
I was just about to let her know when I decided to double-check the email I had sent to her. Of course, the same typo was there. She had just copied my content over to her invitation. It was an embarrassing moment that I could have avoided by spending just a couple of minutes of extra time.
(What is the Point?) So, based on my experience, I’d suggest you proofread every email you send to outside customers. (What is the benefit?) If you do that, you will avoid some of those embarrassing typos.
You may also be interested in Communicating and Leading Under Pressure.