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Giving Impromptu Speeches
By Sean Sheedy   Printer Friendly Version

Have you ever had work commitments keep you from practicing a speech? Have you ever been asked to speak for someone at the last minute? When I started my consulting practice and became a father of twins in the same year, I often found myself lacking time to prepare and practice my speeches.

One of my evaluators wisely pointed out that it is not how long you prepare for a speech, but how efficiently you prepare. If you learn how to refine your preparation and delivery skills, you can deliver a great impromptu speech from your own foundation of knowledge and personal style.

I would like to share with you some of the tricks I have learned about this important skill from my own recent "trials by fire":

1. Don't quit your day job. Your day job in Toastmasters is preparing, practicing, and delivering manual speeches. You should attempt impromptu speaking only after you have completed a number of manual speeches and are already comfortable as a speaker. By this time you should know your natural style and the skills needed for successful impromptu speaking. Speeches in the beginner's manual should never be performed impromptu the first time. Each manual speech is focused on the development of a particular skill. Giving these speeches impromptu is like trying to learn calculus without knowing how to add. If you find that your speeches are becoming increasingly impromptu, you may need to reexamine your business and personal priorities.

2. Know your natural style.
Impromptu speaking is much easier if you know your own natural speaking style. I discovered my natural style on my fourth or fifth manual speech. I discovered that I can easily tell short, humorous stories of things that have happened to me. As a result, my best speeches are those that consist of stories which come from my heart. What is your natural style?

3. Use positive self-talk. My early impromptu speeches were hobbled by negative self-talk. My inner voice kept telling me that I was inadequately prepared and was destined to falter. When I hit the stage, I focused on my self-consciousness instead of the audience, and guess what - I faltered. I turned around this self-talk by realizing through evaluations that I was speaking to friends who enjoyed my personal stories, and who often did not notice when I forgot a point I wanted to make. Suddenly, I found myself connecting with my audience, as if I was talking with each one of them personally.

4. Make a point. Even when you give an impromptu speech, you need structure. The classic "opening, body, and conclusion" falls in place if everything you say relates to a point which you reveal at the end. For example, I recently gave a speech about a family vacation to visit relatives. I opened by saying how much we needed the vacation to escape from work and stress at home. Then I created a body by telling stories like how we stayed in a converted garage which seemed more like a cave, and tried to sleep on a leaky air mattress. Finally, I told how relieved we were to return home, where I drove home my point: a vacation is not so much an escape as it is an opportunity to appreciate what you already have. By making a point, I turned what could have been a boring recitation of a family vacation into a funny story with a memorable lesson.

5. Avoid using notes. An impromptu speech is like a flash flood - it goes where it wants to. If you only have ten minutes to create your notes, you are bound to come up with better ways to express your ideas while you are speaking. Trying to force your speech back to your notes is at best awkward and at worst will throw you completely off track. Abandon your notes, and let the rest of your speech flow from your heart. If you must use notes, they should contain only the point you wish to make, plus a couple of words to trigger any stories you wish to tell.

6. Deliver it as if you've practiced it many times. Don't reveal beforehand that your speech is impromptu. This will undermine your audience's reception of your speech before you even begin. Approach the audience with confidence, as if you've practiced many times before. Deliver it with vigor and confidence, letting your ideas flow as if you are talking to friends. Present your conclusion as if you're revealing something very important. Prepare yourself for the praise you receive when your evaluator reveals that this speech was impromptu!

About apologies: When you're in the spotlight, do not apologize for nervousness, lack of preparation, missing functionaries, or poorly run meetings. The spotlight will turn immediately toward the very flaw you are trying to overcome. I've seen too many cases where a perfectly good speech or meeting was ruined because a problem which otherwise would have gone unnoticed, became the foremost thought of the audience. Let the evaluator or general evaluator judge the severity of any errors you make and point them out at the appropriate time.

7. Be willing to cut it short. Sometimes you'll have covered only half your thoughts, and you'll find a great way to end your story, right there. If you think you're close to the green light, cut to the conclusion! Even though I have to force myself to drop things I wanted to say, my speeches are much better when I dump unnecessary content in favor of a clean conclusion.

8. Tell your evaluator that your speech is impromptu. Ask him to focus their evaluation on what you did to make your impromptu speech successful, and on suggestions that you can use to improve your impromptu speaking technique. It's OK for the evaluator to point out that impromptu speeches should be an exception in a Toastmasters club. It's not OK for the evaluator to chastise you for not spending more time preparing (unless you are making this a habit.) You may want to ask the General Evaluator to assign you an experienced evaluator who has been in your shoes.

9. Practice at table topics. Be bold, and ask the Table Topics Master to choose you during table topics. If you can master table topics, then you will be able to string together an impromptu speech from a series of anecdotes.

10.Volunteer to be an evaluator. This is a great opportunity to learn how to organize thoughts quickly and effectively, and deliver them seamlessly. Force yourself to leave your notes behind when you give your evaluation, so that you learn to think on your feet.

About evaluating without notes: The idea of giving an evaluation without notes used to give me the willies. Then I realized that the worst thing that would happen would be that I might not remember all I wanted to say. I realized that this would mean that my evaluation would merely be too short to qualify for "Best Evaluator." What a small price to pay for learning how to impress my audience with my hands free of notes!

11. Relive the high points. Immediately after your speech, think about the places where you were on a roll. It's likely this is where your self-confidence peaked and you connected with your audience. This is your natural style! Think about your state of mind, and how you got there. Then, do more of it in future speeches.


In real life, many speeches and calls to action are impromptu, and being able to deliver one expertly is a valuable skill. It requires you to organize your thoughts quickly before you reach the stage. This skill can be learned by doing evaluations. It requires you to approach the podium with confidence, as if you've done this many times before. Then you must deliver your speech in your own style, with vigor and energy. When you are done, you can enjoy remembering what you did that made your speech successful.

The ability to perform an impromptu speech well is a skill shared by the best speakers and leaders of the world. When such a speech is prepared and delivered so well that the audience does not even know it, your self-confidence will reach new levels that will carry over into other aspects of your business and personal life. In Toastmasters, these speeches are the exception rather than the rule, but being able to give them is a skill that should be in every Toastmaster's repertoire.

Sean Sheedy

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