How to Speak Extemporaneously: Prepare

Christopher Witt —  September 9, 2013

Man Speaking SpontaneouslySpeaking extemporaneously, impromptu, or ad-lib requires preparation.

The most basic, inviolable rule of public speaking is never to speak without being prepared. That leaves you with only two options: 1) Avoid any gathering where you could even conceivably be asked too speak, of 2) figure out how to prepare for the unexpected.

Mark Twain, who in his day was as admired for his speaking as he was for his writing, observed that “it takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech.”

Here are some suggestions for preparing yourself for those situations when you’re pressed into “saying a few words” without being given time to prepare:

  1. Know what you’re getting yourself into.
    If you’re attending a meeting, for example, request the agenda in advance. Know what’s being addressed. Identify any issue that you possibly be asked to comment on. Prepare your thoughts in advance.
  2. Have a few prepared mini-speeches.
    All professionals should have three or four topics that they can talk about with a moment’s notice: their business, their field of expertise, the job, recent trends or challenges. (You rarely get asked to talk about issues or topics that you don’t know anything about.)
  3. Segue.
    To segue is “so move smoothly and unhesitatingly from one state, condition, situation, or element to another.” Politicians do it all the time. You ask them about something–proposed new taxes, say–and before you know it they’re talking about education. You can do it, too. Say a few general words about the topic you’ve been asked about, and say something like, “it reminds me of…”  or “it’s like…” And then talk about the issue you know and care about.
  4. Stall.
    Stand up. Establish your space. Take a breath. Look someone in the eye. Smile. Say something general and bland like, “That’s a great question you’ve asked, and…” You’re not really saying anything at all. You’re just giving yourself time to think and, possibly, how you can possibly segue into something you do know about.
  5. Be personal.
    Even if you can’t pull together the most coherent, insightful, and clever remarks, you can always talk about who you are, what you do, and why you care. People may not remember what you said, but they’ll remember you and the impression you made.
  6. Be opinionated.
    Offer one–and only one–finely focused insight. Make it strong, sharp, and snappy. If you can take a contrarian point of view and say the unexpected, all the better. Make people think and you make them remember you as someone worth listening to.
  7. Be brief.
    Brevity is a hallmark of most good speeches. It’s the hallmark of all impromptu or extemporaneous speeches. Say what you have to say and, having said, it, sit down.

Do you have any suggestions?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to How to Speak Extemporaneously: Prepare

  1. Chris,

    You say, “Be Brief!” How right you are. Couple reasons why:

    1. The longer or more you “talk past the sale” the greater the likelihood that your message loses its potency or you slip up and say something poorly.

    2. I had a sales job where I overexplained everything to my customers. Finally, my GM sat me down and said: “Will, people think that you think they’re stupid.” Trust your audience, communicate what they NEED to know and let them ask to the level of detail they WANT to know.

    Thanks for being thought-provoking!

    • Thanks for your insights. You’re right on both accounts. First, the more you talk, the greater the chance that you’ll say something that either 1) dilutes your main point, or 2) raises an objection in your audience’s minds. And you don’t want to sound like a know-it-all or to make the audience think you think they’re stupid. (I love that last point.)