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Never, ever “wing it.” This is how to prepare to sound spontaneous

Those who are excellent at off-the-cuff speaking have a secret: They don’t wing it; they prepare. Here’s how.

Never, ever “wing it.” This is how to prepare to sound spontaneous
[Photo: v_zaitsev/iStock]

Today’s workplace provides abundant opportunities for impromptu remarks–in meetings, job interviews, networking events, corridor chats, and elevator conversations. These passing conversations are enormously important in building your leadership image.

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Gone are the days when leaders earned their stripes by delivering scripted speeches or lengthy presentations. Impromptu conversations are the new norm for inspiring others. Even a brief hallway conversation can earn you the attention of a supervisor, a prospective client, or a senior executive. The outcome could be approval for a project, well-deserved recognition, or a job opportunity.

Impromptu: The Myth and Reality

But many people are held back by a myth: that speaking impromptu involves “winging it.” The assumption is that either we’re born with this skill–or not.

But being a great extemporaneous speaker is not about winging it, nor is it for the privileged few. It’s something we all can become good at. Those who are excellent at off-the-cuff speaking have a secret: They don’t wing it; they prepare. As paradoxical as it may sound, preparing to be spontaneous is key. In fact, the word “impromptu” derives from the Latin “in promptu,” meaning “in readiness.”

Whether you have three days, three minutes, or three seconds to prepare, there are techniques you can use to be successfully spontaneous. Here are three I discuss in my book, Impromptu: Leading in the Moment.

Think Ahead – Plan Your Strategy

To begin with, plan ahead. Think about the informal opportunities you might encounter in the next few days, and decide how you’ll handle them.

Look at your calendar for the week. Ask yourself which events will likely involve important impromptu conversations. Suppose you’re scheduled for a networking event. Decide who you’ll want to meet, and what kind of “pitch” you’ll present. Or if you have a regular weekly meeting with your team, think ahead to what contribution you’ll want to make.

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It’s also wise to plan for some of the chance encounters that might occur in the elevator or corridor. For example, if you have a new CEO in the company, think ahead to what you’ll say if you see her. A good approach would be to introduce yourself and welcome her to the company.

By thinking ahead and deciding how you’ll handle each situation, you won’t freeze–or simply mouth platitudes.

Have Leadership Messages in Mind

Second, keep key leadership messages in mind. Those statements are important if you want to make a strong impression in these impromptu situations. They will position you as a leader and ensure that you inspire others.

Messages about you as a leader might include statements like: “I’m pleased to lead our very successful business development team.” Or more specifically, “We have just closed the books on a remarkable year–revenue is up by 25%.”

Messages about your team might sound like this: “My team has been working extremely hard, and they’ve delivered a record sales performance.” Or “We have just come back from our annual retreat and I am excited about the talent in our group.”

Still other messages might be about individuals in your group. “Marcia, a member of our team, has just won a national award for female entrepreneurship.”

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Let’s suppose you run into your new CEO–how wonderful to be able to share one of these messages. These are positive, career-enhancing messages that can be embedded in any set of impromptu remarks.

Collect Your Thoughts

Third, good impromptu speakers are also able to organize their thoughts without having a scripted text. The best approach is to have some sort of template that allows you to structure what you’re going to say, and create a mental outline.

The one I recommend has four elements:

  1. Begin with a “grabber” that connects you to your audience. You might say, “I’ve been meaning to give you a call,” or “Great to see you.”
  2. Next comes your message, a one-sentence statement that often begins with “I believe,” or “I’m delighted to share with you . . . .”
  3. Offer two to four proof points that support your message.
  4. End with a call to action that invites your audience to act on what you’ve said or that suggests collaborative action you and your audience can take together.

A financial executive I know used this template when she was at an international conference. She saw a business opportunity and spent the break jotting down her short script on the back of a business card. She then pitched, and won, an important deal she was after. Her grabber was, “Great meeting you.” Her message: “We can certainly provide the equity investment you’re looking for.” Her proof points elaborated several aspects of the proposed deal. And her call to action was a strong, positive, “We’d love to partner with you.”

Imagine using this template in a quick corridor conversation, an elevator chat, a networking event, or in answering a question. It is an “in the moment” strategy for collecting your thoughts.

Studies have shown that good impromptu speakers are regarded as smart and charismatic. So prepare to be spontaneous. Take the time to master these techniques, and you will come across as a superb impromptu speaker and a compelling leader.

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About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She is a communications expert whose business teaches global clients how to communicate as confident, compelling leaders

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