Speaking Off-the-Cuff: How to Tackle an Impromptu Speech
Imagine you are at your best friend’s wedding and you are sitting at the table just enjoying the food and company.
You’re relaxed, and perhaps a little buzzed.
Then the emcee of the event (being weak at impromptu speaking) calls you.
“Why don’t you share a few words about your best friend, John?”
You look around. There are 30 tables and each table has 10 guests. 300 people. Oh oh.
Your heart starts pounding fast, you begin sweating and you start thinking of an excuse. But everyone starts clapping and cheering you on.
The emcee walks to you and passes you the microphone. The spotlight is on you.
What would you do?
Do you run away? Or do you take the mic and possibly embarrass yourself?
Wouldn’t you wish you had learnt to do impromptu speaking?
Why Impromptu Speaking?
Impromptu speaking is an essential skill because there are so many situations where you may be called up to speak without preparation.
Here are some examples. Try to see if any of these sounds familiar:
These situations happen more often than you think.
Everyone can give a prepared speech well, but it is how you handle yourself when you are the least prepared, that demonstrates your confidence and leadership ability.
So what do you do when you find yourself in any of these situations?
Last Minute Tips for Speaking Off-the-Cuff
Anticipate Such Situations
Before you land yourself in the spotlight, try to anticipate situations where you may be called up to speak.
For example, when you attend a training workshop, the trainer very likely will ask participants to share what they have learnt.
Similarly, when you attend a close friend’s wedding, you may be tempted to give a toast to your buddy.
Or when your team member is presenting a project, and even though you may not be scheduled to speak, there is a reasonable chance you will end up on stage as well.
Before the event starts, take out your phone and make a note of the possible questions you may be asked. Then answer these questions.
It is like preparing a Q&A session after your presentation; you predict the questions that may be asked. Even if the questions are not the same, being mentally prepared to get called up will help calm your nerves and think on your feet.
When you get called up to speak, don’t panic. Rushing up will make you feel more anxious.
Instead, slow down your movements. Take your time. Breathe deep. Get up from your seat slowly.
As you walk to the stage (slowly), use that time to think about what to say. The longer you take to walk up, the more time you have to organize your thoughts.
Slow, controlled movements also signals your confidence. Nervous people fidget, confident people move calmly.
Once you’re on stage, or after you receive your question, pause.
Don’t underestimate the power of the pause.
Pausing not only allows you to organize your thoughts, it lets the audience contemplate the question and form their own thoughts on the subject matter.
Pausing signifies confidence, because only confident speakers do not fear silence. Unconfident speakers think it will be awkward, and it shows through their sub-communications.
Pausing boosts your credibility because it shows you have thought your answer through.
Pausing also ensures that the first few words you utter are not filler words like “umm, well, err…”
Remember, time always seems to appear slower for you - the speaker. What might feel like an eternity for you seldom feel the same to the audience.
Have a Clear Structure
Like any speech, prepared or otherwise, an impromptu speech should have a clear structure. This ensures that your audience can follow along easily.
I often see new speakers answer a question directly, somehow forgetting everything they have learnt about crafting a speech.
At the very least, there should be an introduction, a body and a conclusion.
The introduction serves to capture the audiences’ attention. It also sets the context of the speech. It could also be as simple as repeating/rephrasing the question asked.
The body is for your main points. Ideally, 1-3 points depending on the time allowed. To beef up the main body of your speech, back up the points with some anecdotes, examples or statistics.
Anything more than 3 points and you might lose your audiences’ attention. Keep your speech concise, clear, relevant and try not to be too long-winded.
The conclusion is a recapping of your points, answering of the question, sharing of your main message or a Call-to-Action.
Often, speakers miss the conclusion and end their speech with a very weak “yeah, that is all.”
As Dale Carnegie said:
Tell the audience what you're going to say, say it; then tell them what you've said."
There are many other structures you can use; like the PREP (Point, reason, example, point), the Pendulum Method and the Timeline Method.
To read more about these different impromptu speaking structures (8 to be exact), and see some examples, read our post here: Terrific Tips to Tackle Table Topics.
Tell Personal Stories
When you speak from personal experience, you are sharing something you intimately know.
There’s no need to research or memorize anything. You’ll find that it is easier to tell because the event happened to you. Stories are emotional, real and (usually) interesting.
So when you’re unsure what to say, tell a story that is related to the situation. It makes your input unique and valuable.
Stick to the Truth
This goes hand-in-hand with telling personal stories. There’s no need to exaggerate or stretch the truth. This is not a Tall Tales contest.
Share how you really feel. Are you nervous? Are you excited? Are you afraid?
If you don’t know about something, then say you don’t know.
Telling the truth makes you seem more authentic.
Now, telling the truth doesn’t mean divulging your buddy’s embarrassing secrets during his wedding or telling your boss you hate him.
It just means that you stick to the truth in the moment and not embellish anything.
Humour is a good way to break the ice and to connect with your audience.
Joke about the elephant in the room - that you are totally unprepared to get called on, but be warned, do it weakly and it shows a lack of confidence.
If you can make them laugh, they’ll ignore the fact that you may be unprepared or can’t answer the topic.
In Toastmasters table topics, the speaker who draws the biggest laughters often wins the ‘Best Table Topic Speaker’ ribbon.
As Maya Angelou said:
“At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”
Civil Rights Activist
Make them laugh.
How would you feel if you travelled all the way to an event only to hear the speaker say “Sorry, I didn’t prepare for this talk.”
When you say that, you’re disrespecting the audience members’ time.
Often when a speaker apologises, it is to ‘set the standard low’ in case he screws up. But what it does instead is showing a serious lack of confidence.
In most impromptu situations, you are not wrong (to not be prepared), so why apologise?
Sure, you can mention that this is an impromptu speech, but keep it brief, professional and avoid futile apologies.
Turn it Into a Q&A Session
In cases where you have nothing to say, a smart way of still controlling the stage is to turn the talk into a Questions & Answers session.
This is especially useful for a long (~45min) impromptu talk where you have nothing prepared in advance.
Ask the audience what they think of the topic. Ask them what they want to know. Heck, ask them the question you were asked!
The audience’s input forms the content of your speech. It gives you ideas and threads to work on.
Don’t Drag On
Most people freeze when they get asked a question they know nothing about. But when they receive a question they are passionate about, they go on and on and on and on and on and on…
Once, a speaker spoke for a good 5 min during a 1 to 2 min table topic session. He was losing the audience’s attention but he was so oblivious that he kept going. We had to cut him off politely.
As you don’t rehearse for an impromptu speech, it is easy to go overtime without proper crafting. Hence, aim to keep your speech concise and to the point. Focus on just one message if you are too excited for the topic.
Respect the program agenda.
The mind works in a funny way.
When you stand in front of an audience, thinking of what to say, often times your mind remains blank.
But the moment you start talking, ideas flow automatically into your mind and out of your mouth. You’ve entered flow state, and you’re spewing gold left and right.
It happened to me multiple times and it happened to many speakers I saw.
So if nothing comes into your mind after pausing and thinking for a few seconds, then start talking.
Just say anything. Repeat the topic if you have to.
As cliche as it sounds, practice does make progress.
But the question is: how do you practice for an impromptu speech?
The best way I found is to join Toastmasters. Every Toastmasters meeting has a session called the table topics, which is a whole session dedicated to impromptu speaking.
You go on stage and the host gives you a topic and you talk about it for 1-2 min. That’s literally it.
As simple as it sounds, actually standing in front of an audience and speaking without preparation under pressure is tremendous practice.
If formal practice is not possible, then do it yourself. Search for a list of impromptu speech topics on Google, and answer them one by one.
I have a gratitude journal and on top of each page is a quote. Everyday after practicing gratitude, I practice impromptu speaking by saying something about the quote. Just 1-2 min a day works wonders.
Another ‘game’ I have is called verbal association. I think of an object, and without filter, I just talk about it and the next thing that pops into my mind, I talk about that thing, and the next association, and the next.
You must do this with NO filter, NO judgement and NO pondering. Just free flow. Whatever you say won’t be logical. It simply trains you to associate one object with another.
For instance: book.
The book on my table is very thick and it makes me wonder how many trees were cut just for this book? Trees are really amazing things as they take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. Oxygen is essential for life. You know what else is essential for life? Water. Be like water my friend. Water adapts and fills up the shape of the container it enters. A container reminds me of tupperware. Tupperware parties are so interesting. A whole bunch of housewives coming together selling tupperware. I read somewhere that this is a multi-level marketing scheme. MLM reminds me of the pyramids and oh, I am heading to Egypt next week. Can’t wait!
Crazy how I start with a book on my table and ended up with Egypt.
This trains your association muscle and helps with thinking on your feet. Don’t just do this silently. Say it out loud!
As Mark Twain said:
It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.
Practice, my friend!
Conclusion: On Impromptu Speaking Off-the-Cuff
The next time you get called up to give a talk last minute, remember these tips.
Move slowly, pause, crack a joke, tell the truth, share a story, stick to the point and if nothing else works, turn it into a Q&A session.
I hope this post helps you ease your fear of impromptu speaking. Let me know in the comments what questions you have.
For more impromptu speech structures, read our post: Terrific Tips to Tackle Table Topics.