Impromptu Speaking: It's Easier than You Think

by Elaine Lung

For a new Toastmaster, answering a Table Topics question can feel like a scary situation. Most people use the well-worn adage, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak remove all doubt.” as a reason to hide in the back row and not participate.

How often have you wished to speak up, but couldn’t find the courage or the words to say? When you have the tools, you can learn to use them, practice, and speak with confidence and even ease at a moment’s notice. By the end of this post, you will have these strategies and techniques so that you can be ready to speak up the next time you are put “on the spot”.

First, start with a mindset shift from “I can’t do this well therefore I won’t do this at all” to “I can do this poorly until I learn to do it well”.  You fail to succeed when you fail to try. Every skill has a learning curve, and impromptu speaking is just another skill to learn. Consider what hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Welcome the opportunity to have the chance to try, learn and practice impromptu speaking.

Second, use time-tested improvisational theater (improv, for short) techniques to create a starting point. The improv mindset is to say “Yes, And …” when faced with a situation. Facing an impromptu speaking situation, say, “Yes, I acknowledge the situation I’m in, and I have the needed experience, knowledge, skill, and resources to handle it.” Improv teaches us to draw on our entire life experience as well as what our senses tell us at the moment so that we don’t have to feel the pressure to make something up out of nothing.

When you’re put “on the spot”, what do you have to use in your answer? Your human experience: the speaking skills you’ve used your whole life, your personal stories, and your history, including your family, friends, and acquaintances. You have knowledge: your education, profession, opinion, perspective, current events, and news. Toastmaster Terence Lung’s high school impromptu speaking coach said, “Always be looking around, and know what is going on. Be informed so that you have more to talk about.”

Talk about the Toastmasters meeting in your impromptu speaking and you’ll have speech material as well as a deeper connection with the audience. Observe the attendees, both members, and guests, and use their names. Listen to previous speakers and repeat their quotes and lines, especially the funny ones, as you “call back” to their speeches. People will appreciate that you heard them and noticed them. Don’t overlook the obvious material in the meeting room. What objects are in the room? What time is it? What’s the temperature in the room? The location? Everything available is potential material for an impromptu speech when you use your observational skills.

Many people struggle with how to start an impromptu speech. You can set yourself up for success before you say a word with three physical actions.

  1. Take a deep breath and exhale.
  2. Smile
  3. Stand up straight, with good posture

In that struggle to start, many people reject or censor the ideas that come to mind, leading them to say, “I have nothing to say,” which really means “I have nothing THAT I THINK IS GOOD ENOUGH to say.” You can create a mental dearth of ideas by telling yourself that you don’t have any ideas that are GOOD ENOUGH.  Improv comes to the rescue again, because, in improv, you always use the first idea that comes to mind. You always have something. Believe it. Accept your first idea and use it, because it’s only a Table Topic. It will be over in a minute and gone forever. The skills and self-confidence you build by answering a low-stakes question spread to higher-stakes non-Toastmasters situations.

Third, using a structure with your starting idea gives you a roadmap with which to develop your idea. Do what most Table Topics speakers don’t do: start with an introduction, even just a simple statement of your idea, and end with a conclusion. When you have a clear starting line, you can drive to the finish line, instead of giving a meandering answer without a point. Next, use a speech structure and develop your idea. Several useful speech structures include:

  1. Past, Present & Future: How it was in the past, is in the present & will be in the future
  2. Impact by group (groups of people, departments, professions, etc.)
  3. Tell a story chronologically
  4. Story spine (another improv technique)
  5. Then, Now & How: How you were back then, how you are now & how you were able to transform (for sales & persuasion)

Finally, practice these methods and techniques, both in groups and by yourself. Use the entire Toastmasters meeting as an “impromptu speaking gym” to build your impromptu speaking muscle. Consider the wealth of opportunities available at a meeting:

  • Table Topics Master & Table Topics speaker
  • Chief roles: Sergeant-At-Arms, presiding officer, Toastmaster, General Evaluator, Evaluator, Speaker
  • Grammarian/Word of the Day – applies to all speakers
  • Guests – giving feedback to the meeting organizers
  • Business meeting: members & officers discussion

Challenge yourself to observe and offer helpful, specific impromptu contributions at every meeting, whatever role you take.

Want to accelerate your progress? Practice apart from a group. By putting yourself on the spot, simulating the Table Topic experience by reading & answering random questions from a list, you can get comfortable with many types of questions and develop your answers ahead of time. Consider taking an improv class for even more confidence-building opportunities. See the resource section for suggestions.

Impromptu speaking is a skill that you can develop and master in the safe, supportive Toastmasters environment. The time and effort you put into your Toastmasters’ impromptu speaking spread to the rest of your life and the quality of all your speaking will be affected for the better.

More Useful Tools to Develop Impromptu Speaking

The Story Spine (description + examples) (graphic)

Impromptu Speech Topics

  • Web search: “impromptu speech topics”
  • Magic of Impromptu Speaking by Andrii Sedniev

Improv Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area

  • BATS Improv (improv.org)
  • Made Up Theatre (madeuptheatre.com)
  • Comedy Sportz San Jose (cszsanjose.com)

 

Written by: Elaine Lung DTM – District 101 Silicon Valley Improvmasters & Next Step Advanced Toastmasters Clubs