Stand and deliver: how to give impromptu remarks like a pro

Mark Twain

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain

You’re at a meeting, a retirement party, an awards banquet, a birthday celebration, a wedding, a funeral—any place where people are gathered. Suddenly you hear your name called. Then the dreaded, “Can you say a few words…”

You’re not prepared. You don’t know what to say. But that doesn’t matter because now all eyes are on you.

Giving impromptu remarks is as old as the art of speaking, so why do these moments catch us by surprise? Why do we stumble and falter when we should be hitting them out of the park? After all, it’s only a few words.

If you’re like me, you generally fall back on familiar themes, not really rising to the occasion or shining, just hopeful that you don’t sound too lame—and thankful when it’s over.

It’s in our nature to be anxious about public speaking. It’s part of that fight-or-flight response that’s hardwired into our genes. Our mind freezes up; we become tongue-tied; we feel like all of the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. It’s no wonder the fear of speaking in public is the number one fear, more terrifying than snakes, spiders, heights or death. There’s even a term for it: glossophobia.

Nervousness about speaking may be natural, but that doesn’t get you off the hook. You still have to stand and deliver. Here are some tips for turning those fears around and making the most of the times when you are called upon to speak extempore:

  • Give yourself some credit. There’s a reason why you’ve been asked to say a few words. You’re the subject expert, the trusted friend, the boss. You have a track record of providing insight, offering support or giving encouragement. So give yourself a little credit. You can do this.
  • Someone has to do it. There are times when we simply need to step up and say something. Think of these off-the-cuff moments as opportunities to lead, motivate or teach, to reassure or comfort, to acknowledge, to say thank you or express joy. How you handle these situations can have a huge impact on your reputation as a leader, the relationship you have with colleagues or even the future of an organization. Don’t shirk your responsibility. Step up and own it.
  • Follow a formula. Your remarks may be off the cuff, but that doesn’t mean they have to be disorganized. Good prepared speeches follow certain rules, and so do impromptu remarks. While you don’t have the luxury of developing your points or rehearsing, you can follow a logical format. Consider these strategies:
    • Tell a story. Storytelling is one of the best ways to connect with an audience. Even if you have just have two minutes, you can still recount the first time you met someone or give an interesting anecdote from your career that is germane to the topic.
    • Answer the 5 Ws. Answering the classic who, what, where, when and why is a great way to succinctly convey information, especially if you are called upon to speak at a meeting.
    • Give pros and cons. There are times when you may find it useful to summarize the issue, give the pros and the cons, and then suggest a conclusion.
    • Use Q&A. Asking a question and then answering it is another approach you might try. You may also be able to get your audience to ask you questions.
    • Follow P.R.E.P. Used by Toastmasters, Point, Reason, Example, Point may be one of the easiest ways of organizing your thoughts. Make your main point, give the reason(s) for stating this point, back it up with an example or two, then conclude by reiterating your point. For more ideas, see this how-to from Toastmasters.
  • Breathe. Pause and take a few deep breaths. Stand up if it’s appropriate. Standing gives you more power and helps you project your voice if you are soft-spoken. Collect your thoughts and then consider which formula you will use to deliver your remarks.
  • Say what needs to be said and no more. No one asked you to give a speech. While you may be tempted to go on about your topic, remember it’s just a few words! Try to limit yourself to just one main point.
  • Be prepared. As the old saying goes, “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.” If you think you might be called on to say something, be ready. I remember being asked to speak at a funeral just as the service started. The family had said they didn’t want any speakers, but they changed their mind at the last minute. Luckily, I had jotted down some ideas beforehand—just in case. As a result, I was able to organize my thoughts and deliver a much better tribute than if I had not prepared ahead of time.
  • Practice. There is really only one way to reduce your fear of public speaking and become better at it, and that—ironically—is to do more of it. If you want to improve your delivery, boost your confidence and chase away those butterflies, consider volunteering to speak. Ask your boss if you can present at the next staff meeting. Try your hand at Toastmasters. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel giving impromptu remarks.
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