One of the most common challenges our clients and students face is impromptu speaking.
In most offices, you will need to speak off-the-cuff at various points: meetings, brainstorming sessions, or Q&A after a presentation.
But we often fail to perform when caught off-guard.
Our boss turns to us and says “So, what do you think about next year’s forecast?”
And we draw a blank.
What can we do to improve this skill?
Here are seven tactics to get better at impromptu speaking.
1. Focus on One Big Idea
In the moment, you don’t have a lot of time to think about the topic you’re faced with.
You don’t have the luxury of researching, processing information or forming a robust analysis.
You have to focus on just one big idea.
Don’t try to address every concern. Don’t think about every little detail. The more stuff you think about, the more it will slow you down and prevent you from speaking confidently.
Just focus on one big idea.
At first, the quality of your one big idea might not be great. But that’s ok. As long as you are speaking up confidently and succinctly, you are contributing to the discussion.
Over time, with practice, the quality of your impromptu ideas will improve. But only if you speak up consistently and are not afraid to share an imperfect idea.
If you are having trouble developing one strong idea, that brings us to tactic number two.
2. Develop a Strong Worldview
The foundation of all good impromptu speaking is having a strong worldview.
Your worldview is your overall set of beliefs and ideas about your field or your work.
It’s the overarching story or narrative that everything fits inside of.
For example, if you work in product development, maybe your worldview is that customers need more of a certain type of feature, or better UX, or that you need to speed up the development process.
In the world of finance and investing, your worldview can be your “investment thesis” or your firm’s opinion on market conditions and economic trends.
Your worldview transcends an individual meeting or presentation, but it’s always relevant.
Having this basic framework for working through new ideas will help you speak quickly in the moment when the pressure is on.
You will be able to draw on your worldview and express opinions that are well thought out. And you will be able to connect specific prompts or questions during the meeting to larger ideas.
This will help you speak impromptu, but also it will increase the quality of your contributions.
3. Use Prefacing and Warmup Lines
There is value in just talking.
The last thing you want is that moment of “dead air.” It creates awkwardness, increases your discomfort, makes you less confident, and makes you look less professional and less prepared.
So just start talking. You need verbal momentum to avoid that stagnation. Once you have verbal momentum, you can pivot and switch from idea to idea, or from one topic to the next.
But what do you say? That’s where prefacing lines and warmup lines come in.
These are universally applicable phrases that you can say in many situations, regardless of the specific topic.
Prefacing your comments helps you build momentum before getting to your main points, for example:
“These are all really good ideas. And we’ve definitely heard a lot of these concerns from the client side over the last few weeks.”
“Thanks for that introduction, I appreciate it. It’s great to be here and it’s great to see all of you. I’m looking forward to exploring this topic with you…”
“That’s a great question. I think that’s something a lot of people in this group might be wondering about.”
You can just create these lines, write them down somewhere, and have them ready to go anytime you need them.
You can create as many prefaces and warmups as you want, for a variety of potential impromptu situations.
We often see guests on news shows using this technique during interviews or multi-way conversations:
4. Listen Closely to the Conversation
Impromptu speaking seems like it’s all about you and what you have to say. And of course it is. But just as important as what you’re going to say, is what others are saying.
Listening to what everyone says during the meeting will make a huge difference.
First, listening to others will give you lots of ideas and observations for you to think about. By the time it’s your turn to speak, you will have already formed a point of view based on the discussion to that point.
Second, listening to the major themes of the conversation guarantees that whatever you say will be 100% relevant.
One common fear around impromptu speaking is that we will say something random or somehow disconnected from the larger discussion.
Listening to everyone in the room completely avoids this problem.
5. Mention What Someone Else Said, in Your Own Words
Repeating, in your own words, what others have said serves to ground your statement, and it buys you some time.
This is an effective tactic in professional conversations in general. But it’s especially useful in impromptu speaking when the pressure is on.
You can use this tactic at the very beginning of your remarks, or towards the middle or the end.
This tactic gets everyone on the same page as you (which increases your persuasiveness, as an added benefit).
And, when done at the beginning, it gives your brain some extra time to decide on what specific point or points you want to say.
6. “Take a Step Back” and Summarize What Has Been Discussed
This is another potential opening to your remarks. In this case, instead of repeating someone else’s ideas, you summarize the entire discussion to this point.
“Let me take a step back and see if I understand everything, because I think we’ve covered a lot so far…”
This again buys you some time by essentially “thinking out loud.” You are speaking, but what you’re saying does not require a lot of mental exertion from you.
It only requires you to listen closely to the conversation flow and keep track of what everyone is saying.
And in some cases, just providing that impromptu summary will be sufficient. People will find it useful to get an overall perspective and it helps them to see the big picture.
7. Keep it Short and Sweet
You’ve probably heard the old saying in the sales profession: “Don’t talk yourself out of the sale.”
In sales, once the client has decided to buy, just follow through and close the deal. There’s no need for more talking or more “selling.”
It’s the same concept in impromptu speaking. If you can give your audience one interesting insight or small contribution, consider that a success.
Once you’ve made your main statement and made your impact, don’t keep talking. Just wrap up your comment confidently.
The longer you talk, the more likely you are to make a mistake. And the more you risk that people will think you’re unprepared or disorganized.
You don’t want to wear out your welcome. There is something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more.
Focusing on one big idea and keeping things short and sweet also takes a lot of pressure off of yourself.
How to Practice Impromptu Speaking
The key to getting better at impromptu speaking is practice. Here are two strategies to practice and improve:
Find Opportunities to Speak Up
Every opportunity you get, in meetings or status updates at work, speak up at least once.
You don’t have to say anything groundbreaking. But just speaking up, even to agree or amplify what someone else has said, will train you to be alert and focused during meetings, and ready to contribute.
The Listen and Speak Exercise
We explored this technique as a way to become more concise when speaking. And it applies to impromptu speaking as well.
Have a friend or colleague (or a coach) give you an unexpected prompt, and answer it with as little hesitation as possible.
The prompts can be questions or one-word topics. Repeat the exercise as much as possible, until you feel totally comfortable with impromptu speaking.
As you get more advanced, you can also have your partner put you on the spot with a direct criticism or challenge. This will help you to build your confidence even further.
With both practice strategies, utilize the 7 tactics above. It won’t be long before you feel much more confident and capable in unexpected speaking situations.
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