Sr. Content Marketing Manager
If you’re like nearly 30% of the population, just the phrase “public speaking” might make you break out into a cold sweat. Recent psychology research finds that between 15-30% of people have anxiety around public speaking. While the anxiety may be overwhelming for some, many people are able to develop their public speaking muscle and largely overcome the stress associated with speaking to large crowds. And it’s always easier to minimize public speaking anxiety when the speech is planned ahead of time. But what about impromptu speech?
The thing is, not all public speaking is created equal. There are the planned speaking spots — the keynote address, conference introduction speech, group seminar presentation, or awards speech — and then there are the spontaneous or impromptu speeches. Whether you’re put on the spot to say a few words at a company gathering, or you’re fielding unexpected questions from higher-ups, spontaneous speaking is an entirely different art.
In terms of communication skills, many of us often overlook the skill of speaking on the fly, even though it’s more frequent than you might think — and it can have a substantial impact on professional success. Whether you’re a sales rep, marketing manager or seasoned executive, polishing up your spontaneous speech skills can only help.
Why embrace impromptu speech?
Given how unpredictable business and work can be on a daily basis, being adaptable can make a big difference. From making unplanned remarks at an event to chatting informally with colleagues, there are endless spontaneous speaking scenarios that offer valuable opportunities to build your personal brand, nurture relationships, and expand your network.
Research dating back over 100 years has proven that well-developed “soft skills” and “people skills” like impromptu speaking account for 85% of people’s career success. And 91% of employers continue to seek out strong communication skills when hiring; while 70% of employees feel that better communication would improve their relationships with their peers.
There’s no question that capitalizing on these moments can pave the way for impressing peers and making strides toward your career objectives. But how can you go from a shy wallflower to an expert conversationalist? We’re sharing a few strategies to get you started.
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6 strategies to master spontaneous speech
It may seem intimidating, but speaking on the fly is a skill that can be enhanced with time and practice. As you start on this journey, keep these six strategies in mind to help guide how you engage with others.
Move beyond the usual
We’ve all reached for the obvious conversation starters when we join a group for casual dialogue: weather, sports, upcoming holidays. Everyone goes there — and for that reason, it’s just plain boring. Do your best to avoid default, conventional responses. They might be safe, but they won’t be memorable. You’ll increase your chances of leaving a lasting impression if you find something more unique to say.
Instead of offering a standard greeting or comment, do your best to make your words memorable. One tip is to use shared references or analogies to engage your audience and forge meaningful connections. Or throw in a personal reference that people are likely to identify with. “My son threw an epic tantrum this morning — and it almost made me late to this conference!” That’s a much more memorable icebreaker than asking where people are from.
Find the balance
Keep things brief and focused whenever possible. Especially when responding to someone’s question or addressing a specific topic, it’s important to be concise and avoid going into too much detail that could lose people’s attention.
Do your best to think about what your goal is for the specific interaction and build your response from there. If you’re sharing feedback on a colleague’s marketing strategy proposal, going into more detail and giving specific examples may be warranted. But if you’re informally throwing out ideas for a webinar or ebook, it makes sense to be concise.
We’ve all heard of active listening, but perhaps “deep listening” is a more appropriate strategy here. The more you focus on what others are saying, the easier it will be for you to respond both appropriately and thoughtfully.
Take time to process the information someone is sharing and to engage with them from a place of empathy. Think about what they would appreciate hearing from you, before you move into what you want to communicate.
For example, say a co-worker shares with your small group that his team is struggling to keep their freelance designer on deadline for their current project. The answer may seem obvious to you, but respond first to their sharing of a challenge that’s bothering them. “That sounds frustrating, I’m sorry you have to deal with that.”
Next, gently suggest a solution without sounding pushy. “Have you considered using a project management tool to help keep everyone on the same page?” or “Have you communicated with the freelancer about your frustrations with timing?” Asking a question instead of making a statement is less threatening and helps open up a productive dialogue.
Allow yourself to be ordinary
There’s a difference between being memorable and being perfect. Don't get bogged down by the pressure to say the exact right thing, or the smartest or most illuminating thing. Instead, embrace being your authentic self, and all of the unique knowledge and experiences that you bring to the table.
The most genuine communication stems from being true to yourself. If your boss is sharing about their recent trip to Paris (where you’ve never been) and they ask you what your favorite landmark is there, don’t make something up. Simply say, “I haven’t had a chance to visit yet, but I’d love to check out the Louvre when I make it there.” Your honesty will help build rapport with your colleagues.
Structure your thoughts
Structure amidst spontaneity; how is that even possible? A clear structure for your communication can actually be very helpful — even in impromptu situations, helping make your message more compelling and understandable.
Think of your statement or response like a story, with a defined beginning, middle, and end.
You can easily adapt this type of simple narrative framework to various scenarios you come across. Here’s a general structure you can build from:
Subject: Introduce/reiterate the idea or topic
Importance: Explain why people should care or how it’s relevant
Your take: Share your perspective on the topic
Action: Suggest next steps or implications of what you’ve shared
Let’s look at an actual scenario. Your manager has asked you what you think about your team’s current sales reporting model.
“I’ve been using our sales reporting model for about 6 months now. The data in the dashboard is really important to keep our whole sales team on track and identify any gaps in our processes. I find most of the metrics useful, but I would love to see days sales outstanding (DSO) added so we can track the length of our sales cycle more closely. I’m curious to hear what everyone else thinks.”
In this case, the action you suggest is fielding feedback from others. This is an excellent approach to encourage dialogue and collaboration among the rest of your team.
Getting better at speaking spontaneously
Speaking on the fly with confidence is more than just a skill — it's a valuable tool that can help you excel professionally. From impromptu feedback sessions to unexpected questions from a supervisor, when you respond with poise and thought, you’re more likely to make a lasting impression and build a positive professional reputation — which can take your career far.