“Perhaps you’d say a few words.”
What? Who? Me?!
“Er, um, well, er, gosh, um …”
So This is Impromptu Speaking?
Have you ever been in that situation? There you are, sitting quietly, minding your own business and suddenly everyone’s looking at you. Welcome to the world of impromptu speaking,
Unless you are a natural at engaging brain, summoning up the appropriate words and delivering them confidently, and who is, it’s not going to be your finest hour is it?
Still, it could be worse.
Spotlight On The Speaker
You are at an event where a colleague will be giving a speech or delivering a presentation. You arrive in plenty of time to have a chat with them beforehand and give them a bit of support and encouragement.
But they haven’t arrived yet. Time ticks by. They’re cutting this a bit fine. The event starts in ten minutes.
And then your phone rings. You look at the screen. It’s your colleague. You start to feel uneasy. Your heart rate rises.
Your worst fears are confirmed. Their car has broken down – the engine has overheated – and they aren’t going to make it. Would you fill in for them?
“You know the subject, you’ll be fine” they say. “Sorry, must go, the AA man has arrived.”
Never mind their car, you are now overheating and starting to sweat. What to do? You want to run out of the room but you know you can’t, you mustn’t. OK, let’s think.
You get out a notebook. Your colleague is right, you do know a fair bit about the subject. You’re not the expert that they are but you probably know more than most in the audience.
You quickly jot down everything that you can think about that relates to the subject. That’s good; ideas start to come into your head. How to sort these notes and thoughts into a speech?
OK, lets group thoughts into categories. Underline words that are related. Circle round items in another category. Square box a third group.
You’re left with half-a-dozen thoughts that don’t fit in any of the three groups. Can they be squeezed in? Are they key components? No, not really. Then bin them and focus on what’s important.
Time is running out. But you’ve got a couple of minutes left. Oops, nearly forgot, must tell the host about the change of plan.
The meeting starts. You’ll be on in a few minutes but there’s just time to reorganise your notes.
You write down your three main headings and then group related elements under them.
In your head you go through the presentation.
You will briefly explain the subject and the three aspects that you’ll discuss. You then run through each in your mind. And you remind yourself to sum up the important points at the end.
Your heart rate is still raised but you feel more in control now. Perhaps not exactly relaxed, but reasonably confident you won’t make a complete mess.
An Impromptu Masterclass
Then you hear your name. You are being introduced. Remember to walk confidently to the front. You turn, thank the host for the introduction and greet the audience with a smile. Take your time, don’t rush. Breathe.
Your speech is going well. You glance at your notes occasionally to stay on track. But you are pleasantly surprised by how in control you feel. It’s amazing how that short, focussed preparation time has imprinted your planned words in your mind.
You’ve dealt with all your key points without too much waffling or umming and erring. Now it’s time to sum up the main elements of your presentation. Then you realise you’ve missed an important point. Oh dear, how do you back-track? You don’t!
You summarise as planned and then, “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s one last point I’d like to make. I’m sure some of you have been wondering about xyz. Well, the answer is abc.”
And you have finished. You’ve succeeded. And the audience are applauding.
OK, maybe not quite an impromptu speaking masterclass, but you acquitted yourself brilliantly.
Back to earth. What happens if you’d been allocated twenty minutes and you realise you are running out of things to say with five minutes left? How to fill the time usefully? That’s it, why not invite questions?
Asking the audience if they have anything they want to ask before you sum up and conclude has several benefits. It fills time if that’s relevant. But more importantly, if there’s anything the listeners didn’t understand or want more information about, here’s their chance. And it helps you to connect with them if you haven’t done so yet.
As a bonus, if you realise you’d forgotten a point you wanted to make in your speech, this may present an opportunity to mention it.
Asking for questions can have its risks, of course. What to do if no one asks anything?
Look around the room. Someone may look like they want to ask but are reluctant. Try smiling at them; maybe ask them if they have a question. Otherwise, just go ahead and remind everyone of the key points and then make your exit.
However, more often, after what seems an eternity, a hand goes up. You respond to the question. More hands go up. More answers. It’s time to wrap up, so you thank the questioners. And summarise as previously.
Of course, that’s all well and good. You got lucky and had a few minutes to prepare to speak. But what about if you were the poor soul on the receiving end of, “Perhaps you’d say a few words.”?
When Impromptu Speaking Means Right Now!
That’s not in ten minutes time. It’s now.
OK, don’t panic. Give yourself thinking time. Don’t rush to speak. Follow the same approach as above. Look around, smile, breathe, offer thanks for the opportunity to speak.
Is there a framework you can use? If it’s a product, could you look at its past history, its current performance and future possibilities? With care, you might even be able to apply that approach to a work colleague.
If it is a colleague or friend (they’re not always mutually exclusive!), what are the highlights (that you can mention) of the time you’ve known them? You can probably get the audience to laugh with this approach, of course, being careful not to offend the subject of your speech.
What about pros and cons? Look at a subject from different perspectives while trying to work out what you really think about it.
Oh, and one last thing. When nervous, people often speak quickly, probably hoping to finish as soon as possible. The trouble is that this makes it harder to think about what they’re going to say. So when it’s your turn, take your time. Speak slowly to give yourself time to think. And to breathe.
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