How to Prepare for Impromptu Speeches

“All the world’s a stage, and we’re all terribly unrehearsed”. Oscar Wilde, with thanks to William Shakespeare.

The brilliant Irish playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde, was referring to the sense that we’re always performing on life’s stage.

As I stress throughout my Public Speaking Success e-Program, the more you prepare, the more confident you’ll feel. Then there’s ‘impromptu’ !

If you’re a public figure – an actor, District Attorney, footballer – you’ll constantly be harassed for impromptu comments, on all sorts of subjects. Take a note from the book of the canniest people alive, the politicians. By-pass the impromptu, especially in public. A politician’s comments may seem to be impromptu, but having worked closely with them, I can tell you that it’s the politician’s worst nightmare: to be caught by the media, without having been briefed.

Ever heard of the comment ‘no comment’? It’s there to protect you and it’s perfectly fine to take refuge in it. When you can’t do that, before giving an impromptu speech there are two things you must do immediately.

1. Take a deep, relaxing and calming breath. The sort of deep diaphragmatic breathing you discovered in Calming Words, and then…

2. Put your mind into razor sharp focus on the subject matter of your speech.

Usually you’ll only be put on the spot if people know that you’re a good speaker, if you’re the most senior person available, or if the most senior person hates public speaking and can delegate to you!

If you’re at work one afternoon, someone might say to you:

“Jerome, would you like to say a few words of farewell to Betty on our behalf?”

If the person making the request is your boss, then you can’t readily say no. Remember, you can always gain preparation time by immediately saying:

“Absolutely, love to. But not before I make one quick phone call, or go next door to buy some bubbly….”

That gives you three minutes to five minutes, which you can use to jot down two points about Betty.

If you can’t, or don’t want to bid for time…
If you’re put on the spot and can’t get that five minute prep time, relaaaax. Deep breath in, oxygen is calming. Smile. Your emotions will follow your smiling action. Either with or without time to jot down notes, remember these four points:

1. YOUR AUDIENCE IS NOT THERE TO JUDGE YOU. Like you, they all love Betty. Besides, most people are glad that it’s you who is in the spotlight, not them.

2. TAP IN TO YOUR FIRST REACTION. If your first reaction is you’ll miss Betty, that’s a definite point to include. Think quickly about what you’ll miss most. Is it her efficiency, her sense of the ridiculous, or both? If another simultaneous reaction is that you’re happy for her, that’s another point to include.

3. SPEAK FROM THE HEART for no more than two minutes. The simplest most direct communication often bypasses our rational monitor.

To combine both reactions – ‘happy for you Betty, but we’ll miss you’ – I’ve set out a couple of ways to tell Betty that. Before reading those outlines, remember the fourth point about impromptu talks:

4. MOST IMPROMPTU SPEECHES ARE PRELUDES. This impromptu speech is not Betty’s formal or final farewell. It can be as brief as a minute because it will not be the final opportunity you have to convey your appreciation of her. So say that. “I’ll leave the rest of what I want to say until we have our official send off for Betty. For the moment, let me ask you to raise your coffee cups/glasses to drink to Betty’s health and future success and happiness. To Betty.”

“Jack has given me the honour to say a few words on our behalf this afternoon. Of course we’ve known for a while that you’d be leaving us Betty, to start your new and challenging career as a mother. That’s hard to hide!! I know it’s something that you’ve been looking forward to for a long time, and we heard the dreadful news some time ago that you’d decided to take at least a couple of years off to stay at home to enjoy your new baby.

Dreadful news for us, I mean. Those of us who are parents know that you’ve made a difficult decision but the right one for you, for Michael, and for your new child. If you’re half as good a mother as you’ve been our IT manager, your child will be greatly blessed. In fact, we all know how wonderfully you’ll fulfil your new role as a parent. The sort of patience you’ve had to show here with us will stand you in very good stead. We’ll miss you terribly, you know that. But hey, this isn’t goodbye, it’s only au revoir. I hope, we all hope, that you’ll come back to visit us often. For now, let’s raise our glasses to wish Betty health and happiness. To Betty.”

I offer that outline only as an indication of the content and tone you should aim for in those situations.

Please, use the opportunity only to say something positive and affirming about Betty. No negative comments about babies crying all night, or that Betty has made a bad career move. It’s a time to affirm how wonderful Betty has been.

If Betty is leaving to take up a promotion or a better job, you’ll say similar things but for different reasons – happy for you, we’ll miss you.

Optional extra: add one positive little one-minute anecdote about Betty.
As you’re walking to give your farewell Toast to Betty, think about: what was your first impression?

I’m sure you’ll easily come up with an extra minute about her.

“I remember, and I think most of us remember that wonderful day nine years ago, Betty, when you started working at _________.

You seemed so quiet and shy, and compared to the rest of us, you were. Let’s face it, Bet, we’re a rowdy lot!! We’re not the only ones who’ll miss you. Our clients have always adored you etc ,etc…On behalf of your friends and colleagues I want to propose a Toast to your future success: to Betty. (Remember the Toast!)”

If you think that you might be called upon at work to make an impromptu speech, keep a page in the back of your diary with a sentence or two of notes about each member of staff in your team. Write the sentences in a way that points to the uniqueness of each person. Those attributes are always worth mentioning on birthday, Christmas/Chanukah cards or any special celebration cards. As always, to your continued happiness and success,