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How To Speak Off The Cuff Like A Pro

We make a mistake in conversation roughly every 4.6 seconds. The more you try to sound like Churchill, the less you will.

[Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images]

"Okay folks, uh, there's—I have to apologize," Steve Harvey said, moments after millions of Colombians had started celebrating from their living rooms.

"The first runner-up is Colombia," he then clarified. "Miss Universe 2015 is Philippines."

When Harvey mistakenly declared the wrong contestant the winner of the Miss Universe pageant last month, he turned a routine ceremony into one of the most cringeworthy moments in live television history.

That was probably better proof than any of us needed that live speaking carries the potential for major mishaps. So, how do you demonstrate the power of your thinking in those unexpected hallway meetings, sudden phone calls, or other speaking occasions when you have no time to prepare? These five strategies can help you speak with power at a moment’s notice.

1. Give Yourself A Structure To Start With

Getting back on the right foot is infinitely harder than starting off on it. One way to ensure a strong start is to incorporate the questions you're asked into the beginning of your answers. For example, if someone asks you a "Why?" question, start off by saying, "One of the reasons why . . ."

This approach is also helpful because using a consistent structure at the beginning of your responses gives you time to think. It may not seem like much, but since we think three to four times faster than we speak, it can really make a difference.

What's more, a simple response can help keep you on track as you go on. You'll know where to go next ("Another one of the reasons why . . .") without losing your train of thought or precision.

2. Have A Story Or Two In Your Back Pocket

When you're asked to make your point off the cuff, telling a story can add clarity and color. And yes, on a good day, you might be able to drum up a great story spontaneously. But if you want to make your ideas memorable every time you're asked to share them, you'll need to have a story or two lined up and ready to go.

Try to choose stories that you can connect to many different situations—there are more of those than you might think. It's important to choose your story wisely, but once you have, it's pretty simple to fit it into this fail-proof formula for conveying it concisely and with a sense of purpose—even if you haven't practiced beforehand.

3. Don't Try To Be Profound

Churchill you are not. And that's fine. But many of us venture to leave the sidelines only when Churchillian moments hit us, and when we do, we wind up sounding like blowhards. So while you don't want to occupy airtime for its own sake, it probably isn't the best idea to wait until you have something really significant to say before speaking up.

One of the keys to great impromptu speaking is a simple confidence that your input is potentially valuable even in small, modest bursts. Sometimes you can advance a conversation merely by providing your perspective. So suspend your self-judgment and don't approach each off-the-cuff speaking opportunity as a big event. You can make a contribution just by invigorating the discussion, even if you aren't solving the main problem.

4. Make Eye Contact, And Maintain It

You need to make consistent eye contact to project confidence, particularly in spontaneous situations. Their unplanned, usually informal nature leads many of us to be more lax with our eye movements. But you need to discipline your gaze the same way you would in a more formal setting.

Try to maintain eye contact the entire time. When you're speaking, it's okay to look down intermittently, but you should generally be maintaining eye contact. While you don’t have to look exactly into your listeners' eyes, you do have to keep your gaze focused on the area around the eyes—what I call "the triangle of face"—from the eyebrows to the tip of the nose.

5. Know You Won't Be Perfect

One of the reasons you may loathe spontaneous, in-person communication is because you're terrified of messing up. This is a common theme in Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. In it, Turkle explains that many people "actively want to avoid the spontaneity of conversation" and prefer "the edited life" that digital communication now affords us.

But here’s the good news: Everyone makes mistakes. And chances are, yours won't be as painful as Steve Harvey's. In his book Forms of Talk, sociologist Erving Goffman claims that we make a mistake in conversation roughly every 4.6 seconds. So don’t hesitate because you're trying to be perfect; you’ll be fighting a losing battle.

You'll sound far more engaging if you speak naturally than if you try to curate every word you say—even if you slip up a bit. Relax, and speak from the heart.

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