Impromptu Speaking: A 7-Step Plan

Public speaking is scary. Impromptu speaking in public is even scarier.

Here’s a strategy that will give you confidence.

Whether you are a student, a politician, a business person, or just someone who happens to be standing around looking like you know something, sooner or later you are going to be asked to say what you think or know about a subject with which you may be familiar but about which you have not given a great deal of thought.

The subject may be that day’s class assignment, or a controversial public policy, or a product you want to sell. It might be where you found that awesome bag you’re carrying or the location of the nearest taco stand, Starbuck’s, wi-fi hotspot, or public restroom.

If you answer the question poorly, you may fail your class, lose your election, blow the sale, or make a fool of yourself in public. If you answer well, the world will smile upon you.

This is the challenge of the impromptu speech. By definition, it is a speech you have not prepared ahead of time.

Well, you may not be able to memorize and practice what you will say about every random subject you may be asked to speak about, but you can memorize and practice the following simple strategy that will help you produce an engaging, confident and intelligent-sounding impromptu speech on virtually any random subject that gets thrown your way.

 

  1. Restate the question or topic; you can also redefine it if you like

“So, just so I understand what you’re asking, you want to know to know about____, is that right?”

“I have been asked to talk to you about ____. To me, that means ____.  Does that sound fair to you?”

Restating, paraphrasing or redefining the question serves several important functions. First and foremost, it gives you time to start thinking about the subject. By restating the subject out loud, you jump-start your associative brain into bringing your store of memories and knowledge of the subject into your available consciousness.

Nearly as important, you let your questioners know you have listened to their question. By letting them know your understanding of the question, you allow them to confirm or correct your understanding, which is a demonstration of your respect for them.

You can add to this expression of respect by praising the question and/or the questioner: “That’s an excellent and very discerning question!”

By restating the question, you alert the rest of your audience to the subject about which you will speak. And by praising the questioner, you also gain the respect and good will of the rest of your audience by showing this amount of respect to one of their members.

  1. State why you are the ideal person to address this topic

“Lucky for you, I am the world’s greatest expert on…”

“It just so happens that I grew up with…”

“Before I address this topic, you should know that I have owned these things since I was…”

“Well, if you want to know about ____ you have come to the right person.”

Before you can expect your audience to pay attention to what you say about a subject, you have to give them reasons why they should be attentive. Your audience will pay more attention to what you have to say if it appreciates your expertise on the subject. One way to establish credibility is to state your credentials: your relevant education, training and experience.

Credentials are not enough to truly establish credibility, however. Projecting confidence is even more important. Credentials without confidence will get you nowhere.

(Confidence without credentials will take you further, but a confident buffoon is eventually recognized as a buffoon.)

Credentials and confidence together are more likely than either alone to take you where you need to go.

  1. Tell a story that illustrates your expertise or experience with the topic

“In fact, when I was in junior high school…”

(And try to work in a “you” line such as “Have you ever…?”)

It is one thing to tell people you have experience. It is quite another to make that experience tangible by illustrating it in a story.

Audiences engage and interact with stories. They imagine how they would feel and act in the stories’ situations. They create mental images of you acting in the story that are more powerful, memorable and convincing than any list of college degrees or years of experience could ever be.

  1. Then answer the question or give your current views on the topic

“And that’s why I believe…”

“So while I used to think ____ when I was younger, now I think…”

If somebody asks for directions to the nearest bathroom, don’t make them wait for an answer. But if the credibility, likability and persuasive power of your answer is as important as the information you want to convey, then you need to preface your answer with a strong foundation.

The more thought, experience and expertise your audiences perceive as going into your answers, the more deeply they will attend to and be influenced by those answers.

Suppose someone in a restaurant turns to you and asks, “How’s the duck?”

If you just say, “Good,” they will not take it as strong an endorsement as if you preface that word with, “How’s the duck? Well, let me tell you, I LOVE duck. I’ve eaten duck all over the world. Once in Shanghai I had a Peking Duck that…”

Of course, if the restaurant is crowded and the questioner looks impatient, you might want to cut to the chase and say, “I’m pretty particular about duck, and this duck is GOOD. Enjoy.”

Too much personal horn tooting can be a turn-off.

  1. Signal you are ending by restating the question/topic and summarizing your ending

“So, in answer to the question ______, let me summarize my thinking…. .

After you have finished answering the question or run out of things you want to say on the subject, you should signal you are done with a recap. Restate the question or the topic on which you were speaking, and then summarize the main points you tried to make during your impromptu talk.

By summarizing your main points, you give yourself an extra opportunity to add final details or correct misstatements.

Signaling the conclusion serves to recapture the attention of people whose minds have wandered off. It also helps avoid the awkward silence that can occur when people are not sure whether you have more to say on the subject.

  1. If you were answering a question, check to see if you have answered it satisfactorily

“So, does that answer your question?”

Communication is a two-way process, and it is always a good idea to check to see if your words were understood in the ways you intended. This direct question also shows an extra measure of respect for the questioner and the audience by asking for and giving your endorsement of their power to evaluate your performance.

An additional benefit of this final question comes as a result of the interaction between the human politeness bias and the principles of cognitive dissonance.

Because of the social pressure to give you a positive response, the audience is likely to evaluate the quality of your answer more highly than if you did not ask for the evaluation, and then realign their memories of your performance to agree with their more-positive response.

  1. Finally, when you are ready to stop speaking…

Finish by acknowledging the audience one last time: say “Thank you”  NOT “That’s it.”

Porky Pig used to finish his cartoons with “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”

Th-th-that’s much more acceptable than “That’s it,” which shows a lack of respect both for your audience and your presentation.

Whether the people in your audience sat quietly in rapt attention or had to expend great effort to remain awake while you spoke, they deserve your appreciation and recognition for allowing you to address them, so give them your thanks.

“Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”

Communication with Purpose