There’s a paradox at the heart of off-the-cuff speaking: You can still prepare to appear spontaneous. It isn’t just about faking it, though. It’s about having a prepared mind. True, in many contexts, you can’t decide in advance what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. Sometimes you’re put on the spot unexpectedly. Other times, you know you’ll need to speak, but the format doesn’t allow you to show up with notes in hand and peek at them halfway through.
But neither situation simply forces you to wing it and hope for the best. With a little forethought, you can be prepared to go off script and still sound like you know what you’re talking about–because you actually do. Here’s how.
The first step to mastering impromptu speaking is simply to know what your message is. So even if you don’t know what questions you’ll face–or even if you didn’t expect you’d have to face any–keeping a key set of talking points in your head can be a huge help no matter the situation. These should be pretty obvious to you; they’re your most compelling ideas, the ones you’re best qualified to speak on and those that people are generally most interested in hearing.
Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, is always “on message.” He has one central message or vision: “connecting the world.” You’ll pretty much always hear him deliver variations on this theme, no matter the context–about how Facebook’s mission is connecting the world, that the company is all about bringing people together, building a global community, and so on.
You may not have a single, pithy message that’s appropriate for every situation, of course. And just rehearsing corporate catchphrases is never a smart move. But Facebook’s “connecting people” message is ultimately the distillation of a wide range of ideas Zuckerberg is uniquely qualified to discuss in much greater nuance. Likewise, you can probably identify a handful of ideas or topics you’re most likely and best equipped to address in professional settings.
So prepare to keep those on hand. Write down a set of key messages you can call upon when speaking spontaneously. Burn them into your mind so you can draw upon them every time you speak. They’ll be the foundation of your many impromptu speaking scripts, which you can mentally reach for, even when you weren’t expecting to have to.
Got your message lined up? Great. Now it’s time to give your spontaneous remarks some structure.
Depending on the situation, you may have only a few minutes or even a few seconds. But no matter how long you’ve got, you’ll need a structure to organize that message–to make sure it’s delivered in a comprehensible and meaningful way, no matter the format or circumstances. Once you know your message, these four steps are easy to follow, even when you’re speaking off the cuff.
1. Bridge to the audience. If you’re in a meeting and about to bring a faltering discussion back on track, start with words like, “All of us have agreed that . . .” or “I’m on board with Bill and Amir’s suggestion that we need to move forward” or even just, “To Jane’s point . . .” Speaking spontaneously means establishing some sense of continuity, showing others that what you’re about to say fits into the larger conversation. In short, this “bridge” shows you’ve been listening. And it’s about finding common ground. So even if you’re going to take issue with what’s been said, don’t say, “I disagree” or “On the contrary . . .” Instead, start with, “I can see why Pauline takes that approach. I see it a little differently.”
2. Get to your main point. Once you’ve built a bridge, get straight to your message by framing it as something listeners can recognize as your message. You might begin with, “My point is . . .” or “I believe that . . .” or simply “Here’s the thing. . .” Your main point should be one idea expressed in a single sentence. If you can’t boil it down this far, it’s a sign that your main point is probably several points, or none at all. For example: “My view is we should proceed with the project,” or “Our firm is well-positioned to meet your needs.” But a more complex message can often still fit into just one sentence: “If we’re going to meet these goals as a team, we’ll need to collaborate better.”
3. Back up your message with evidence. There are different rhetorical structures you can use in order to organize the proof you give for your main point. These aren’t exactly rocket science. For instance, “My first reason is . . .” or simply “First . . .” Then do the same for the other reasons. You can also add structure by weighing a handful of options, instead of points of proof. Say, “The first way we can . . .” and so on. You could also use chronology if your point is more of a narrative. This would sound something like, “At first . . .” “Next . . .” “Finally . . .”
4. Close with a call to action. Propose what your audience should do, or suggest what you and they will do together. This gives your message “legs.” You might say, “So let’s agree that this project is now going forward with our shared commitment.” In a client pitch you might simply say, “We’re really looking forward to an opportunity to work with you.”
If these steps sound straightforward, it’s because they are. The point is to keep the fundamentals in your head so you can call them up in any situation on the fly and adapt them as needed. The secret to great impromptu speaking is presenting compelling ideas clearly and succinctly. So you may not be able to prepare your actual remarks, but you can practice delivering them–even when you aren’t expecting to.