People who are nervous about public speaking are sometimes put off doing public speaking courses because they don’t want to do impromptu speaking. Impromptu speaking, or table topics as it is known in Toastmasters, requires the participant to respond to random topics with no preparation. For example, you might be asked “what is the best advice you have ever had?” or “if you could time travel, what year would you chose to travel to?” Or you might be asked to give your opinion on a topical issue such as, “should we ban plastic water bottles?”.
There are some good reasons to practice impromptu speaking. These include:
You get practice ‘thinking on your feet’
While you may not have to answer random questions in ‘real life’ you may have to respond to something unexpected quickly, for example in a job interview.
There is nothing to memorise, so you are not even tempted to use notes. In my mind this is one of the most important benefits.
Nothing bad will happen
Even if you performed badly you may feel more relaxed afterwards as you realise its just a bit of fun and no one cares!
A bit of humour can be helpful
Topics are often humorous and so impromptu speaking can be a great way of helping people to relax. When I work with young people I do an exercise where each person continues a made-up story. Young people find this easier than many adults because they don’t mind being ridiculous. The stories can get very silly but they students have a lot of fun. I do this early in the programme now as it helps them bond.
It plays to some people’s strengths
Some people prefer impromptu speaking over prepared speeches where they are nervous about forgetting something. For these people, impromptu speaking can give them a chance to shine.
My own experience is that although impromptu speaking is not my strength, it no longer bothers me. I can find something to say on any topic if I have to. And if I can’t I will just change the topic which is perfectly acceptable in impromptu speaking! Sometimes I am aware that my response was weak, but I know that no one will remember by the next day. Other times I come up with a reasonable answer although I can almost always think of a better one the minute I sit down!
Despite the benefits, I question whether it is the most important thing to do with people who are very nervous. The counter arguments are:
In conclusion, I am a little on the fence when it comes to impromptu speaking. I think there are benefits but we need to be careful not to put people off. For this reason, any impromptu speaking we do in Fear-less courses is voluntary. We do other exercises where participants have limited preparation time, but they aim to develop the type of skills you might need in the workplace such as listening, processing and responding to something that someone else says.
Article written by Catherine Syme
I strongly believe that anyone can manage their nerves and become a better public speaker with the right support.