Impromptu Talks

"It takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech." - Mark Twain

Many impressions and decisions are made based upon impromptu talks at meetings and conferences, in the classroom and in daily conversations. You can learn to think on your feet and become at least an adequate extemporaneous speaker. If you are frequently or even occasionally called on for impromptu remarks, the exercises necessary to develop the skill are worth the effort.

As mentioned in the introduction, this publication focuses on the invited talk for which you have time to prepare. Clearly much of the advice is not applicable or must be substantially abbreviated for impromptu talks. Some of the suggestions, however, can be used on the spur of the moment, especially if you have become familiar with them in the context of preparing and delivering invited talks. You can do a quick assessment of the audience by simply looking around the room. You can organize your remarks by making a quick mental outline or, if time permits, jotting down a few notes. You can incorporate many of the elements of good delivery And it is possible, with practice, to train yourself to do a commendable job of ad-libbing with less than Mr. Twain's recommended three weeks preparation time.

There are two types of extemporaneous speaking situations: times when you choose or feel compelled to contribute and times when, out of the blue, you are called on to contribute. The latter is, by far, more difficult, but there are a few tricks to help you with both situations.

The problems with impromptu talks for most people are their inability to organize their thoughts quickly and coherently, and to know when to stop talking. There are several patterns to keep in mind that will help you formulate fast mental outline.

Your mental outline should include your conclusion, the primary message you want to leave with the audience, presented as a strong, positive statement. Inexperienced extemporaneous speakers often simply forget a closing statement and just stop speaking. Resist the temptation to ramble; say what you have to say and either sit down or call for questions.

If called on unexpectedly to say a few words, stall for a moment or two to collect your thoughts by thanking the chair or speaker for giving you time to speak and possibly reiterating something said previously. Asking a rhetorical, yet relevant, question is also a way to buy a little time and can serve as your opening.

Practice in spare moments by picking a topic, taking a minute to prepare a mental outline or make a few notes, then standing and speaking for a couple of minutes. Increase the speaking time as you become more comfortable with the exercise. A practice shortcut is to make quick mental outlines of topics while reading the newspaper or watching the evening news. In training yourself to speak extemporaneously, the thought-gathering process and the speedy organization of those thoughts are the keys; the topic is almost incidental.

Addressing a Nonscientific Audience

"Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much." - Robert Greenleaf

As with addressing a scientific audience, when speaking to a lay audience or the media, the point is to clearly and concisely communicate your information on a level they will understand. The point is not to overwhelm or snow the audience, nor to impress them with your vast knowledge and lofty credentials.

Effectively communicating with such a group usually means greatly simplifying a complex topic. There are some important guidelines that will help you with that task.

Confusing a lay audience is bad enough because it essentially wastes their time by failing to provide new, comprehensible knowledge. Confusing media representatives, however, can have farther-reaching consequences, including being misquoted and made to sound foolish. Keep your remarks simple, direct and well grounded in scientific fact.

Practicing your talk before a rehearsal audience of approximately the same age and educational level as your real audience is an excellent means of testing whether you will get your message across clearly. Does she understand everything? Does he need more background information? Does she have questions? Does he understand why the topic is important? Add to and subtract from your talk according to the responses.