Do you find impromptu speaking difficult? Are you articulate giving prepared presentations but struggle to “think on your feet?” Many people find this hard. Even when you have plenty to say, organizing it into something coherent can be challenging with no time to prepare.
In a recent job interview, my 21-year-old son was asked to describe a time he had to think “outside the box” in an everyday situation. He said he would need a minute to think. He came up with a work-related example that was not very radical and only partly his idea. It was to do with their pricing strategy, and he admitted it was mainly his boss’s idea. He thought that the interview had gone quite well but was worried about his answer to that question.
He got the job, and I am guessing that his response to that question was fine. They were probably looking at how he acted under pressure rather than what he said. Asking for a minute to think was a good strategy. It showed that he didn’t panic. And he came up with an answer even if it wasn’t a brilliant one.
You can improve your impromptu speaking skills
Toastmasters clubs train people in public speaking through an exercise known as Table Topics®. The Toastmasters International website says, “Table Topics® is a long-standing Toastmasters tradition intended to help members develop their ability to organize their thoughts quickly and respond to an impromptu question or topic.”
You might be asked a random question like, “Who was your first childhood friend?”; “Tell us about a memorable dining experience.”; or, “Should we ban plastic water bottles?” Your challenge is to deliver a one to two-minute mini-speech on that topic.
Try these strategies
It takes time to get good at impromptu speaking but here are some strategies you can use:
Also, knowing that I can answer weird and whacky questions gives me confidence that I can answer questions more likely to be thrown at me in a work situation.
When I started coaching, I did not include impromptu speaking exercises. I had a theory that some people avoid public speaking courses because impromptu speaking terrifies them. I reasoned that it was better to get them to a public speaking course than not. But I found that many groups wanted to try it out – especially after they got to know each other!
Fear-less courses now offer a low-key version of impromptu speaking and there have been some unexpected benefits. It forces people to stand up without notes. It introduces a bit of humour which helps relax people. When I work with young people, I use a made-up story exercise. Young people respond to this better than many adults because they don’t mind being ridiculous. The stories can get very silly, but the students have a lot of fun.
It also plays to some people’s strengths. I had one course participant who struggled with prepared speeches because he didn’t trust himself to remember. Then he did an impromptu speech about his morning routine, and it was hilarious. I realized that he had a great sense of humour and encouraged him to use this to his advantage in other exercises.
How to practice impromptu speaking
If you don’t want to join Toastmasters or take a course, you can still practice impromptu speaking.
Here are three ideas:
I used to wing job interviews (sometimes it worked but usually not!) until I realized that more than half the questions were predictable and I could practice model answers aloud. “Tell us what interests you in this job.” “Why are you the right person for this job.” Or, “tell us about a time that you had to manage conflict in the workplace.” These are typical questions that you could be asked in any job interview.
Even if the question takes a slightly different form, it is easier to modify an answer you have prepared than to make up something. Having an elevator pitch is also a smart idea for business owners. The person you are responding to does not know that you have said the same thing many times before.
"It usually takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech."
Don’t just assume that you are no good at “thinking on your feet”. While a few people are born with the “gift of the gab”, anyone can get better with practice.
Article written by Catherine Syme. Updated and substantially revised August 2020
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I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.