How to Ace the Impromptu Speech
This event is over now, but you can send your questions anytime.
Several readers sent in questions related to impromptu speeches, including Matthias K.:
I’m pretty comfortable when I have days or even weeks to prepare a speech, but I REALLY struggle when I’m asked to speak at a moment’s notice. Do you have any tips for impromptu speaking?
In this article, you’ll find a set of tips that will make you shine the next time you are asked to speak on the spur of the moment.
Impromptu Speech Scenarios
Impromptu speaking may not be as glamorous as prepared speaking, but it is an equally vital skill simply because there are so many scenarios where you find yourself speaking without more than a few moments of preparation. It’s no surprise that “impromptu speaking sessions” are found within Toastmasters meetings, college communications courses, and public speaking seminars.
Consider just a few situations where you find yourself speaking off the cuff:
- The scheduled speaker is unavailable (or late), 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 (yes, your Q&A session is 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.
- You are asked to provide a brief status report for your project at a department meeting.
- You are motivated to join the debate at the parent association meeting for your child’s school.
- You decide to give an unplanned toast at an event with family or friends.
It’s also worth noting the irony that the better you are at giving prepared speeches, the more often you will be invited to speak with no time for preparation at all. Your friends and colleagues will recognize your speaking skill, and when they need “someone” to say a few words… you’ll be that someone!
Winning Strategies for Impromptu Speeches
Although you may only have a few seconds to prepare for any particular impromptu situation, you certainly can prepare yourself to be ready when called upon.
Here are a few strategies you can use:
Anticipate situations where you may be called upon to speak. For example, if you are attending an engagement party for a close friend or family member, there’s a reasonable chance that you might be asked to speak. Similarly, 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, do a few mental exercises, trying to guess what you might be asked to speak about, and how you would respond. Even if your guess isn’t accurate, it’s amazing how those prior thoughts will help you think on your feet when you are asked to speak.
Wrap your response around a simple template, or framework. If you practice this a few times, you will find that your mini-speeches are much more polished and coherent. A few easy frameworks include:
- P.R.E.P. (Point. Reason. Example. Point) – Start off by clearly stating your point. Share the primary reason (or reasons, if you have more time). Then, share an example (preferably in story form) where your main point or reason is supported. Finally, conclude by summarizing your central point again. The template works well in many situations, and is easily adapted.
- Issue, Pros vs. Cons, Conclusions - Start off by framing the issue. Talk about the benefits, and then talk about the drawbacks. Conclude with your recommendation.
- 5W – 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 fundraising initiative, you could talk about  who started it, and who is involved now;  what the goals are;  when it started, and the schedule for the future;  where does it take place; and  why are you involved. This template works nicely, largely because the “why?” comes last, because this is often the most critical information.
Turn your impromptu session into a Q&A session. In situations where you are asked to fill in when the schedule speaker is absent, it may not be wise to 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.
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 preparation) because the events happened to you.
Avoid the tendency to go on, and on, and on. Craft a coherent message, and then be quiet. Rambling on will only weaken your overall speech. If you must fill more time, shift into a Q&A.
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 (probably) recognizes that you’ve been thrown in at the last minute, and they will understand.
Your Turn: What’s Your Opinion?
Do you have any proven strategies for mastering the impromptu speech?
Please share in the comments.