In the biking community, there is an old saying: there are two types of riders ― those who have fallen and those who will fall. Similarly, in the realm of public speaking, there are two types of speakers ― those who have given an impromptu talk and those who will. Whether you’re the former or the latter, what you’re about to read can take you from a rambling wreck to a confident communicator. I’ll let the cat out of the bag right up front; the best way to become a more confident impromptu speaker is to be prepared. Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re ready to stop reading because, by definition, impromptu means an act done without previous preparation. And here I am suggesting that you prepare in advance. Patience, young Grasshopper! (1970s Kung Fu reference)
Each time you speak, whether it’s prepared or impromptu, the process is fundamentally the same. First, you collect your thoughts. Next, you sort and sequence those thoughts and, finally, you share them with your audience. The major distinction between the prepared and impromptu talks occurs at step one, thought collection. Obviously, you cannot collect your thoughts because the topic is unknown. Consequently, steps two and three are adversely affected. If you’ve ever been unexpectedly asked to “say a few words” and felt your brain racing as it flooded with ideas, you know exactly what I mean.
Like many of life’s challenges, what separates the wheat from the chaff is your ability to quickly adapt to the unknown. Impromptu speaking is no exception; the secret to mastering the impromptu talk is to establish and practice a few well-defined thought patterns. This way, no matter what the topic, you can quickly formulate and express your thoughts in a clear and compelling way. Think of it like a cookie cutter. Chocolate chip, peanut butter, double fudge . . . the flavor of the cookie (your speaking topic) will change but the shape produced by the cookie cutter (your thought pattern) will always be the same.
In the very likely event that you are called on to improvise a speech, don’t be overwhelmed by the moment. Instead, immediately focus your thoughts on the two topics that readily avail themselves in every circumstance, the purpose of the meeting and the audience. Here are the two thought patterns that I pull out of my back pocket when I’m asked to speak impromptu:
(For both examples, let’s assume I was asked to speak about impromptu speaking.)
#1 The P. R. E. P Method
Perspective — Admittedly, public speaking can be scary but impromptu speaking takes the cake.
Reason — The reason for this is you have no time to prepare so there’s a high probability that you could sound like a babbling idiot in front of your clients or colleagues. (Nobody wants that!)
Example — I’ll never forget the time I was unexpectedly asked to speak at our quarterly sales meeting with 100 people in the room…
Position — If you’re serious about taking the guesswork out of impromptu speaking, you need a few cookie-cutter thought patterns in your back pocket.
#2 The CAMERA Method
Zoom Out — It’s amazing how many people would rather give up one of their children than speak impromptu, especially considering they speak impromptu in everyday conversations. (Big picture)
Zoom In — Just like everything else, there is a science to mastering impromptu speaking. Simply, establish a few well-defined, easy-to-remember thought patterns. (Small picture)
Refocus the Lens — If you can effortlessly speak impromptu in conversations, it’s completely possible to do the same in front of an audience. The only thing holding you back is the absence of a cookie-cutter thought pattern to organize your ideas. (Combination of big and small pictures to draw a conclusion)
Once you establish your go-to thought patterns (or borrow mine), the next step is practice. (Yes, Allen Iverson – Practice!). Here’s the skinny on practice: (1) on slips of paper, write down 5 – 10 topics you could be called upon to speak about; (2) scramble those papers and pick one; (3) try to speak on the chosen topic for one minute. When you’re comfortable doing that with several topics, extend your speaking time. Wash . . . rinse . . . repeat.
Rarely has anyone skyrocketed their career or exploded their business from an impromptu talk but many have diminished their reputations because they could not own the moment. There is a silver lining in the impromptu cloud ― at least you don’t have to worry about forgetting what you planned to say!
Dez Thornton is a communications coach who helps you say the right words in the right way when they matter most! For more information, see www.dezthornton.com.