The key to successful impromptu speaking is illusion, to give the impression you’re speaking off the cuff, when in fact you’re well prepared. This goes as much for answering an unexpected question over a business dinner as it does for delivering a keynote speech or conference presentation: whether you can be assumed to have rehearsed your material or not, you’ll always make a better fist of it if you have.
As far as speeches and presentations are concerned, if you don’t hone them and practise them beforehand, at the very least you’re wasting the opportunity to make your talk the best it can be. What you’re aiming to achieve is rehearsed spontaneity, the illusion of impromptu speaking. This gives you the best of both worlds, the sincerity and vitality of spur-of-the-moment communication and the clear, confident flow of a thought-through narrative.
Mark Twain is quoted as saying,
“The best and most telling speech is not the actual impromptu one, but the counterfeit of it … that speech is most worth listening to which has been carefully prepared in private and tried on a plaster cast, or an empty chair, or any other appreciative object that will keep quiet, until the speaker has got his matter and his delivery limbered up so that they will seem impromptu to an audience.”
Absolutely. Whenever you have advance notice of being asked to speak, take the chance to prepare and practise.
But what about those times when you’re not given advance notice? Well, the thing is, rehearsed spontaneity cuts both ways – and will help you in both directions. Although you’ve rehearsed it, your speech or presentation needs to sound spontaneous. Although your answer, contribution or ‘few words’ sounds spontaneous, you need to have rehearsed it.
Looking through the other end of the prism, Mark Twain (is reported to have) also said, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” It must only seem impromptu!
Genuinely impromptu speaking leaves you wide open to making gaffes. I was going to say, if you don’t believe that, here’s an interesting article about a study of CEOs’ impromptu speaking abilities – but since you’re reading this article, I’m sure you’re fully aware of the dangers.
Genuinely impromptu speaking is disjointed and waffly. Even if you manage not inadvertently to offend anyone or give away any trade secrets, you will never be as fluent or as pithy, you will never have as much impact, as if you had thought through your message carefully in advance and said it out loud a few times.
Genuinely impromptu speaking can be scary. Having a microphone thrust in your face when you’ve got no idea what to say is not the most comfortable position to be in. Even if you’re just sitting in a meeting with colleagues, if someone suddenly asks for your opinion, how easy will it be for you to express it effectively? Might you get flustered?
Don’t be afraid to prepare
Sometimes people feel it’s embarrassing or arrogant to be prepared to speak on an occasion when it’s meant to be spontaneous. Award ceremonies are notorious for this: if you’ve been nominated, be prepared to win! If a party or reception is being held in your honour, there’s a chance you might be asked to say a few words, so have them ready! If you’re giving a presentation or attending an interview, spend some time thinking about all the possible questions that might be thrown at you and rehearse your answers till you know exactly what you think and can put it across concisely and confidently.
Prepare not to be afraid
If you’re well prepared, however big or hostile the audience, you can handle the situation with aplomb. A combination of practical and psychological preparation will make you bulletproof. Even if you’re not as well prepared as you’d like to be, you can still do a good job if you stay calm and think clearly.
Unavoidably Impromptu Speaking
If you ever are taken by surprise and confronted with impromptu speaking, here are three tactics to support you:
Don’t react too hastily. A knee-jerk reaction may lead to trouble, so give yourself a few seconds to think before you speak. If necessary, play for time by batting the question back or asking for clarification.
Sketch out your thoughts. If you have even a few minutes to prepare an impromptu speech, report, media interview, use the time to write notes to keep you focused. As pointed out in this article about off-the-cuff speaking, structure is a huge help.
Consider refusing to do it. Some people are so comfortable with public speaking themselves they forget others find it challenging, some people make a living out of catching others off guard, and some people are just plain thoughtless. If someone asks you to improvise a presentation or be interviewed live on air right now, please consider saying no. Any approval gained by your acceptance of the task will soon be forgotten if you make a hash of it. To put it the positive way round, saying no may save you from a soul-destroying experience and (as if that wasn’t enough) you may also gain respect through not allowing yourself to be bulldozed into metaphorically stepping into the limelight in your underwear.
Practise… and Practise… Your Speaking
If you hone and practise your material, it will get better and better and better – that’s for sure. But the principle is true in a meta sense too: the more often you prepare and rehearse a talk and then deliver it to an audience, the better you’ll get at being able to do that. In the same way as someone who has been playing the piano for years will do a better job of sight-reading a piece of music than will someone who has never touched a keyboard, once you’ve mastered the skills of putting yourself across, you’ll be able to speak more effectively with less time spent on preparation than you did when you were new to it.
Take control of your destiny by polishing your communication skills before you’re put on the spot.