“Oh, crap! He’s looking at me. He’s going to ask me the next question. Now what do I do?”
I’m glad you asked. You take full advantage of the impending impromptu speaking opportunity by being prepared, practicing impromptu speaking skills, and remembering the big three: Time, Approach, and Purpose. This will serve you well whether the impromptu speaking opportunity is in Speechcraft, a meeting with your boss’s boss’s boss, or in a behavioral interview.
Time: Don’t you wish you were one of those lucky people who always have a snappy and impressive response ready whenever they are called upon? I’ve always wanted to be one of those lucky souls, but I find myself agreeing with Mark Twain that it takes me about two weeks to work up a good ad lib comment. But I need time to frame my response, so I pause; I ask for a repeat of the question to verify I heard it correctly; or I restate what I’ve heard and ask for confirmation. Each of these techniques gives my mind five to ten seconds to start thinking about the message I want to deliver.
Approach: You can always choose the truth and a straight response. If you are comfortable with the topic and have a viable response, the straight truth and a simple response are probably your best bets. If the topic makes you uncomfortable or is about something unfamiliar to you, you can twist your response to something more to your liking. For instance: Larry asks you which candidate you are voting for. You could respond with, “Larry, I’m glad you asked who I’m voting for. The American democratic process makes this one of the greatest countries in the world, and the thing that makes our process work so well is the secret ballot, which allows each person to vote his or her conscience without fear of repercussions.” It is not an answer to the question asked, but sounds kind of like it might be. And, if worded properly, will probably get you off the hook. The third approach, and one I have used frequently in Toastmasters, and occasionally in other situations, is to lie. In Toastmasters and Speechcraft your topics will frequently be written on a piece of paper. If you don’t like the topic you were given, you can just make up one you do like. No one but you and the person who created the question will know what you’ve done.
Purpose: Do you want your response to inform your audience, persuade your audience to do or not do something, or simply to entertain those around you. To inform your best tool is the STAR method: Situation, Tasks, Action, and Results. To persuade, you want to make sure you tell your audience why they want to do what you want them to do, the “What’s In It For Me” method. And, if your goal is to entertain your audience, just have fun with your response. You might try a joke or two, wandering off on a tangent with a confused look on your face, or even speaking in a language you made up on the spot.
I’m not very good at truly impromptu responses, so I plan ahead: I read a lot of history. I try to be aware of current events. I pay attention to what’s going on around me. I sometimes even listen to what my wife is saying, just in case. I have learned which tools and techniques work best for me and use them whenever appropriate.
Impromptu speaking is a lot harder than you think it is – if you choose not to prepare and practice.
Impromptu speaking is a lot easier than you think it is – if you have a plan and are willing to take a chance.
Impromptu speaking is just exactly what you expect it to be – a great chance for you to impress others without having to go to the trouble of preparing a speech.