Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Impromptu speaking – strategies for winging it

It’s public speaking anxiety Big Time.  Whether you’re invited to say a few words on the spur of the moment at an event, or your job  requires it of you, or you suddenly feel compelled  to speak  your mind about something, impromptu or-off-the cuff  speaking is intimidating.  Even experienced speakers are challenged by this. It’s normal to feel fear.

If you find yourself  needing to speak NOW, here are some techniques to help you.

1. Scan the audience. Who are they? Why  are they here? What do they expect or want from you?

2. Have something to say. Sounds easy, isn’t easy. Like all speeches you need to make a point. Don’t just start telling a story and hoping for the best. Know where you’re going.

3. Buy a  little time to figure out what your focus will be.  Depending where you are you can slowly fill your water glass, fumble for your glasses, make a visit to the bathroom before you get started…anything that gives you even a brief moment to think, because once you are underway you can’t stop and think.

4. Address your audience directly. Chances are you are being asked to speak on some sort of  special  occasion. You  can ask  if they can hear you, or pose a question like “is  everyone’s glass full?” or say “isn’t it great to be here” or make a light hearted remark that  gets a chuckle. This will create a relaxed connection and get them to focus on you.

5. Nail the start and the finish. “Bookending” is a useful technique.  You open with a comment or anecdote or a piece of information which you return to at the close of the speech. It gives a sense of unity, completion and purpose. But  more importantly, by knowing  where you are landing,  it is easy to travel through the speech to get there. If you think of nothing else, have your final few words in mind.

6.  Keep it moving. Don’t  embark on a sentence and then change direction, or go off course or pursue tangents.  You must travel from the beginning to the end of your speech in a purposeful and polished way.

7.  Apply  the rule of three. Threes are always good. Talk about three characteristics of the person, or three stages of how you came to this issue, three reasons why this is  important to you, three things this person has done, three things the audience should know…

5. Speak slowly. You can’t ever be too slow…but you can spoil the effect by going too fast.

6. If you are proposing a toast, do it with gusto – it’s the climax. Lead the applause.

Here  is more  on impromptu speaking from Andrew Duigan’s Six Minutes blog: How to Ace the Short, Impromptu Speech.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 [1] whostarted it, and who is involved now; [2] what the goals are; [3] when it started, and the schedule for the future; [4] where does it take place; and [5] why are you involved. This template works nicely, largely because the “why?” comes last, because this is often the most critical information.
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2 comments on “Impromptu speaking – strategies for winging it

  1. Felice
    14/11/2012

    Hi Claire Duffy. I found your blog while searching for speaking techniques to make me feel more comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. I just want to thank you for the blog it was a very easy but helpful and useful read.
    I am a communications student taking various classes where I have to present speeches weekly. You brought up a few great points that I have struggled with in the past and gave answers that helped me deal with them. P.R.E.P. is a great technique to keep me organized when I speak and I do plan to use it for every prompt speech here on out.
    You have inspired me to go to class and be more confident in front of the audience.
    Thank you

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