professional development

Three steps for delivering an impromptu speech, whatever the occasion

Martin Kovacs /

The ability to deliver an impromptu speech or presentation is an important skill in the business world, and one that requires the ability to think in the moment and to adapt as conversations evolve.

While it can be a difficult skill to master, there are a number of techniques that can be employed to help speakers convey their message when asked to speak at short notice.

Matt Abrahams, Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer in organisational behaviour, writes for Insights by Stanford Business “that in business spontaneous speaking is much more prevalent than planned speaking”.

“Think of being called upon to introduce someone to others, or having your boss ask you for feedback on a new idea, or handling questions at the end of a meeting,” he writes.

“These spontaneous speaking situations occur all the time.”

Abrahams says there are three steps he works through with his students to help improve their spontaneous speaking skills.

Are you in your own way?

Abrahams says that “the very first thing that gets in your way when impromptu speaking is you”, because speakers tend to want to ensure that their words carry weight.

“Before speaking, you likely judge what you intend to say and weigh it against your internal criteria – ‘what I intend to say isn’t insightful, helpful, worthy, relevant, etc,’” he writes. “This pre-evaluation work decreases the effort you can put into successfully speaking spontaneously.”

Instead of “striving for greatness”, Abrahams says that speakers should challenge themselves “to just accomplish the task at hand”.

“By reducing the pressure you put on yourself, you will increase the likelihood of doing well,” he writes. “Simply put: setting greatness as your goal gets in the way of you ever getting there.

“Of course, this is easier said than done. You are working against habits that you’ve developed over the course of your life. But by giving yourself permission to respond in the moment, rather than get it right, you can get out of your own way and speak well.”

Rather than employing tools like preparing answers to potential questions, Abrahams recommends listening and focusing on what is being said, allowing speakers to “respond authentically”.

Opportunities or challenges?

Abrahams says that situations that call for “spontaneous” speaking should be viewed “as an opportunity, rather than a challenge or a threat”, observing that many executives view Q&A sessions “as an adversarial experience”.

“Seeing impromptu speaking as an opportunity feels very different,” he writes. “You are more willing to engage.

“When you feel challenged, you will likely do the bare minimum to respond because you are protecting yourself. If you see the interaction as an opportunity where you have a chance to explain and expand, you are going to interact in a more connected, collaborative way with your audience.”

How to structure?

Using effective structures is important to effectively convey your message.

“Structure is important because it increases what academics label processing fluency – the effectiveness with which information is cognitively assimilated,” Abrahams writes.

Abrahams highlights two possible structures for speeches – the first, “problem-solution-benefit”, sees speakers start by addressing the issue or problem, then moving on to a way of solving it, and finishing with discussing the benefits of employing their plan.

The second, “What? So what? Now what?”, sees speakers begin by talking about what “it” is, then talking about why it is important, before finishing by explaining what the next steps are.

“The reality is that when you are in a spontaneous speaking situation, you have to do two things simultaneously: you have to figure out what to say and how to say it,” Abrahams writes.

“These structures help you present your message. When you become comfortable with these structures, you will be able to respond more quickly to impromptu speaking situations.”

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Martin Kovacs

Martin Kovacs is a journalist with experience covering the IT, consumer electronics, retail, finance and energy sectors.

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