10 top tips for delivering an impromptu speech

No time to prepare? Take heart - and take note.

by Jeremy Cassell and Tom Bird
Last Updated: 19 Apr 2018

For many of us it’s the worst case scenario – suddenly having to deliver an impromptu presentation. Being asked to speak in public is a major challenge for many leaders. Being asked to speak spontaneously as well as publicly can catapult the task straight into the very-difficult, to-be-avoided-at-all-times-I'd-rather-die category. The negative possibilities appear grave – your brain freezes, you mumble incoherently or you appear to lose all gravitas.

Yet these scenarios happen all the time – introducing yourself at networking events, giving a toast at a company party, unexpectedly being pulled into a meeting to give an update, having a colleague directly turn to you in the middle of a presentation for input or being asked an unexpected question on a panel. 

While you may wish for thorough preparation, giving an extemporaneous speech can mark you out as an excellent communicator. It’s how you handle yourself when you are least prepared that often demonstrates your leadership and influencing abilities.

Here are 10 top tips for performing – and presenting – under unexpected pressure.

1. Be confident - Look up, breathe deeply, say to yourself something positive – ‘I’m going to be fine’.

2. Focus on the audience - Every presentation, including impromptu ones, need to be audience centric. The audience will be on your side – focus on what will be useful to them.

3. Less is more - Avoid the tendency to ramble. An audience is far more likely to listen if you stay on target and are succinct. In fact they'll love you for it. Keep it short and to the point. Remember the Power of 3 – stick to three key points.

4. Have a structure - Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them. In the main section use a simple structure. For example:

-          Past / Present/ future

-          Cause / Effect / Remedy

-          Before / The Event / The Result

5. Primacy and recency - The audience will remember the first and last things you say. Make sure these are therefore powerful and linked to your key message.

6. Talk conversationally - Imagine you are speaking to your best friend and let yourself be authentic and natural.

7. Personalise your speech & have a relevant story - Share from personal experience. No need to research, no need to investigate, and no need to memorise anything. When in doubt about what to say, just tell a story from your past related to the situation. Stories are memorable.

8. Demonstrate powerful body language - Stand tall on both feet, resist the urge to slump or fiddle, use big gestures, smile and get eye contact with your audience.

9. Use a credible voice tone - Go slowly! Hurrying will increase any feelings of unease you have. Take your time. Breathe deeply. Deliver your words slowly and use pauses.

10. Turn your impromptu session into a Q&A session - For lengthier impromptu speeches reframe the session as a Q&A session, which breaks a session up into a series of very small impromptu interventions which will be easier for you to answer individually. Also, the content comes directly from the audience, so you are guaranteed to deliver what they are seeking.  

Whilst we can still enjoy the famous tongue-in-cheek Mark Twain quote ‘it usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech’, you now know what to do when confronted by the dreaded impromptu business presentation. Now all you have to do is practise on the edge of discomfort.

Jeremy Cassell and Tom Bird are co-authors of The Leader’s Guide to Presenting (Pearson, UK Business Book of the year 2018).

Image credit: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

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