If there’s one thing that many people fear more than giving a presentation or a prepared talk, it’s speaking off-the-cuff. For many, it’s the thing-to-be-avoided-at-all-costs, or an I’d-rather-die situation.
Impromptu speaking can turn confident presenters into quivering wrecks. I know this from personal experience.
In 2009, I joined Toastmasters. I was an experienced speaker and I even had a background in the performance arts. I felt pretty comfortable in front of audiences. Giving prepared speeches in my club was fine.
And then there was the dreaded Table Topics. Toastmaster meetings always include a section to practice impromptu speaking skills. The “table topics” person asks you any “table topic” question, and you must stand up, organize your thoughts quickly and give a short answer.
I had a pretty silly strategy. When it was time for table topics, I would look at the floor, refuse to make eye contact with anyone and wish with all my might that the earth would swallow me up.
If I was called on, my face and neck turned beet red. My heart would pound. I often wondered if others could hear my heart beating! And then, my mind would go completely blank. I couldn’t even remember my name!
Things began to shift over time with practice and a few realizations. In retrospect, there were three things that helped me gain confidence with impromptu speaking. I learned how to shift my perspective, I began to trust myself and I developed a simple framework to answer questions.
Shift Your Perspective
In a curious way, my performance background was my biggest obstacle. Preparing for performances was all about rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing and getting it right. My brain mistakenly tried to apply the same techniques to impromptu speaking.
If I was called on, I put immense pressure on myself. My brain said, “you better get this right. Whatever you say must sound really smart, profound and creative!” It immediately felt like a huge obstacle or a threat. No wonder I shut down!
I eventually learned how to turn off that internal performance critic. Rather than striving for perfection, I just answered the question. When I gave myself permission to just answer the question, my energy opened up, I began to breathe and answers began to pop into my head.
The lesson? Reduce the pressure you put on yourself to do well and get out of your own way. See impromptu speaking as an opportunity to connect and engage, to clarify, to understand. No more, Oh no, I better get this right!
If you freeze up when your boss asks you for an unexpected update at a meeting, or when someone asks you to describe your business, you may need to develop more trust in yourself. It’s not that you don’t know the answer. Trust that you do.
Trust that you know this and have everything you need to speak about it in a confident and coherent way. Pause, sit in silence for a moment, take a few deep breaths and see what pops into your head. Trust the first idea. It takes a little courage. Relax and speak from the heart. With practice, you’ll begin to trust yourself.
A Simple Framework
You’ve shifted your perspective and now you trust that you can do this. But how do you start? You don’t want to go into stream-of-consciousness rambling. There are simple frameworks you can keep in mind that will keep you on track and increase your listener’s ability to process your answer. These frameworks will also keep your answers short and to the point.
Here are just a few frameworks that you may find useful.
- (Classic PREP) Acronym for Point, Reason, Example, Point
Point– the headline—what you’re talking about— or your overall message
Reason—your opinion, what you believe, reasons for your position
Example— relevant story, examples or facts that illustrate your point
Point—restate your point and/or give a call to action
Problem-what is the challenge or problem?
Solution—way of solving it
Benefit—benefits of following through
- Who- What- When- Where- How (good for discussing events)
Who-who is this about or for?
What-what is this event or meeting?
When—deadlines, dates and times
How—support you’ll need to organize and implement it
The reality is, opportunities for impromptu speaking happen more often than planned speaking. It’s time to jump in!
I was terrified when I started, and now I actually think it’s fun! With practice, anyone can shift their perspective, learn to trust themselves and find frameworks that work for them.