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Public Speaking: Important Ideas for Impromptu Speaking

by Ken Bradford

How do you prepare for an impromptu talk?

Unplanned talks, made up on the spur of the moment can be dangerous. In the tense moments as you prepare to stand and speak on something intelligently — consider the following ideas.

The less time to prepare — the more important a simple outline.

Three is a simple yet powerful geometric. When rushed, consider dividing your topic into three parts. You’ll be in good company. For instance, Egyptians chose the triangle. Consequently, the only ancient wonder of the world still standing today, the pyramids, is testament to the strength of three pointed configuration.

The father of modern space flight, Wernher von Braun, was once asked to give an impromptu talk explaining how we could send a man to the moon. Undaunted, he replied, “Simple. We design a spacecraft that lifts off from the earth, travels to the moon and returns!” No topic is too difficult to explain in threes.

Preparing his thoughts as he rode a passenger car from Washington to the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln employed a three point outline for his immortal Gettysburg Address. “Four score and seven years ago” he began, the past. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” the present. — and “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.“ the future. Building his talk around a simple outline of past, present and future turned out pretty well, don’t you think?

There is certain majesty in simplicity which is far above all the quaintness of wit. — Alexander Pope

So how do you be more persuasiveness on short notice?

There are many great techniques. Here are three ways.

  • First, no matter how short or long your remarks you want a positive start. Train your tongue not to kick off with trash words like “huh” or “well huh.” Those on the receiving end are forced to take in your offering, mentally move it to trash, empty, and then return, all in a resentful flash. It’s a brief bother, but never fun taking out someone else’s rubbish. If you say a few huhs later, don’t worry about it. Just determine to get rid of the initial one.
  • Rather than generalizing or rambling, recall a specific incident from your own experience. Describe the memory. It’s much easier and impressive than making up lofty sentences. To tap into your knowledge bank, use a primer like “That reminds me of the time when...” then expand with the other five serving men you know like the back of your hand, where, who, what, how, and maybe why. If you toss in some dialogue, that’s a bonus attention holder.
  • Lastly, consider enumeration. The simple act of tagging your points out loud with the prefixes 1st, 2nd and 3rd can help you sound like a pro. Again, three is a good length. And if you leave one out, chances are listeners will remind you. Use this final technique sparingly for risk of being labeled a numerologist, unless you are a numerologist, then it’ll just add up.

Few people know how to ‘wing it’ and sound prepared. Expect the fear of speaking in public to decrease with these proven principles. With practice your odds of success climb along with confidence. Chances are audiences will thank you with their nods and applause you sounded impressive and because you didn’t waste their time. They may not always agree with you, but they can’t help but pay attention to your ideas.

I could never make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.
Mark Twain

Ken Bradford, author of Fearless & Persuasive Speaking, A Communication Guide For Leaders, facilitates a nationwide leadership program for non-profit trade associations. Members nominate participants to attend the annual speaking training. www.
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