5 Impromptu Speaking Strategies

We all have moments when we have to present or comment without prior notice or preparation. This is called impromptu speaking. For example, your boss unexpectedly asks you to update everyone on a project during a meeting. Since research statistics tell us that approximately 37% of employee time is spent in meetings, there’s a high probability you could find yourself in this scenario. Or maybe a coworker asks you to tell a story during an office party. Or a potential employer asks you a job interview question you hadn’t expected.

Most of human communication isn’t carefully scripted out and planned for the way presentations are. But the skills we use in more formal public speaking situations can come in handy when we find ourselves put “on the spot” or having to speak “off the cuff.” Try using these 5 strategies to help your impromptu response come off as polished and prepared.

1. Start with sincerity.

To begin, take just a moment to sincerely respond, not to the question, but to the opportunity to speak. Thank the person for asking for your opinion or response. If the question has caught you off guard, say so. You might say something like, “No one has ever asked me that before. What a great question!” Or, “I’m flattered that you’d like my opinion on this.” This tactic serves two purposes. First, it fosters warmth and connection and vulnerability—all important things in human communication. Many studies have proven the positive effects of sincere gratitude on relationships and communication. Second, it allows you a little time to think about how you’ll respond.

2. State your main point.

Briefly state the main point you’d like to get across. Ideally, your main point should be stated in one simple sentence. What is the main thing you want your audience (even if it’s just one person) to take away or learn from what you are about to say?

3. Break it down. 

Once you know the main point you want to get across, move through your response bit by manageable bit. Studies have shown that even if we are working alone, we need some type of change or shift in information about every three minutes, so don’t spend too long on any one point. You might simply number the main things you’ll address in your response using ordinals like first, second, and third. Or you might use a chronological flow to structure your response. Sometimes a past, present, future structure might be helpful in organizing your thoughts and response.

4. Back it up.

When you aren’t prepared to give a response, it can be tempting to just talk in generalities. However, this can lead to a response that is lack-luster, repetitive, and rambling. To prevent this, think of ways that you can illustrate your points with specific examples or stories. Try using one example for each bit or point that you talk about.

5. Wrap it up.

One of the biggest mistakes impromptu speakers make is to draw things out too long. Once you’ve said what needs to be said, you should stop talking. To end, you might give a quick summary, express thanks again for being given the opportunity to share, or elicit a response from another person. Perhaps Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it best, “Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated.”

If you truly feel like responding without preparation could have negative consequences, you can ask to defer your response to later if the situation allows. You might say something like “Can we circle back to this at the end of the meeting?” or “I’d love to hear what others' thoughts on this might be” or “There’s some information I’m still gathering, and I’d love to wait until I have that complete information to comment.”

On Wednesday, we'll address a very specific impromptu speech, the elevator pitch. Until then, use these 5 strategies to enter any impromptu communication with more confidence. And check out our online presentation skills course for more ways to master the art of public speaking. 

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