As a business professional, do you frequently face situations where you need to “say a few words” without time to prepare? It might be a meeting, conference call or request to fill in for another speaker, to name just a few scenarios.
For many, these situations can induce more anxiety than making a prepared presentation. As a result, you may find yourself rambling, filling your sentences with “ums” or, in the worst case, completely drawing a blank. When that happens, both your point and your credibility are in jeopardy.
When there’s no time to prepare, how do you formulate your thoughts in the moment so you can be compelling and engaging? Let’s take a look at the surprisingly effective strategies that can help you project a confident image and provide coherent content in your next spontaneous speaking opportunity.
The 5-second prep for spontaneous speaking
A number of years ago, I found myself on the spot in a client meeting. After spending an hour talking about an escalating issue, the client asked everyone at the table to share their strategy for resolving the problem. In that moment, I asked myself some key questions:
What point must I convey?
How can I support it?
How do I need to say it?
In a matter of seconds, I knew what my message was, how to frame it, and how to deliver it appropriately. The result? The client clearly understood and accepted the strategy, and the work was ours for the next three years.
Can it really be that easy? The truth is, even when you only have seconds to collect yourself, following this strategy helps you come across as more articulate and confident. Here’s how.
1. Always listen carefully.
Have you ever noticed that the best speakers are also the best listeners? If I hadn’t been paying careful attention to the client’s concerns, I would not have been able to come up with an effective strategy on the spot.
2. What’s your takeaway message?
Ask yourself: what do my listeners want or need to know right now? You may be surprised at the way answers will emerge by simply asking yourself this question. Try to express it in a single sentence.
3. How can you frame that message?
Next, choose a familiar structure to organize your thoughts and help others to follow what you’re saying. For example:
Problem/Solution: State the problem, then present your solution.
Point/reason/example: State your point, give the reason behind it, and illustrate with an example.
Theory/practice: State the theory behind your idea or proposal, then explain how it will work in practice.
BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): State the conclusion or desired end point, then talk about how to get there. For example: “Bottom line: we need to save 10 percent. Let’s talk about how we can do that.”
Once you gain some experience using these structures, it becomes much easier to execute on the spot.
4. How do I express myself appropriately?
This is all about your tone and choice of words, as well as facial expressions and gestures if you’re meeting face to face. Do you need to be casual, empathetic, authoritative or business-like? Match your delivery to the culture of the people you’re addressing to ensure your ideas resonate.
Yes, you can practice being spontaneous
Spontaneous speaking is like any other skill: it improves with practice. It can be helpful to remember that you are speaking spontaneously all the time: on the phone, interacting with colleagues, even discussing ideas over lunch. The difference is that you don’t necessarily think of those everyday interactions as “speaking.” Since there is not as much riding on the outcome, they don’t raise your anxiety level.
To take your skills to the next level, create moments of opportunity for yourself to practice and become more comfortable being spontaneous. Here are a few ideas for doing that:
Join a Toastmasters group. Toastmasters’ longstanding Table Topics Workout is intended to help members develop their ability to organize their thoughts quickly in response to an impromptu question or topic. If joining Toastmasters is not an option for you, try a similar exercise with colleagues in a relaxed setting. Here’s a great resource to get you started: 365 Table Topics Questions.
Challenge yourself to speak up in meetings. If your tendency is to avoid participating in large group meetings, try using them as a chance to up your game. Start by asking questions, which will lead to more opportunities to share your thoughts and ideas.
Join a networking group. Chances are, your industry or city has local networking groups. These are great opportunities to meet people and advance your career as well as practice spontaneous speaking. Each time you meet, make it a point to answer a question, relate an experience or share an opinion.
Play games. Watch Matt Abrahams’ presentation "Think Fast, Talk Smart" for some fun exercises to improve your skills:
Over time, using your spontaneous speaking skills can become like flexing your muscle memory: the more you do it, the easier it gets and you’ll find yourself performing better, with less stress.
"How to prepare for an unrehearsed speech is analogous to interviewing. If you take this advice, and practice, you will be better at answering unexpected interview questions."
~ David Miles
This article was originally published on April 21, 2017 in SmartBrief. Stephanie Scottiis a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.