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How to Give a Successful Impromptu Speech
by Chris King

If you are known as an experienced presenter or as an expert on a particular subject, you will certainly be asked to give an impromptu speech at one time or another. Rather than declining or becoming tongue-tied, you should view this with enthusiasm as a great opportunity to shine as a speaker. How can you make sure that this will be the successful outcome?

Be prepared with a second presentation. We have heard and read that Mark Twain said “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” But, you ask, how can I prepare if it is impromptu? If you are already presenting as part of a program or seminar, there is always the chance that one of the other speakers may not show up. Check to see what other topics are going to be covered, and if you have background in these areas, be prepared to give a second presentation. If not, have a second presentation ready that you could offer as a substitute. You would be surprised at how often this situation arises due to travel problems.

Be willing and able. You just arrived for an evening or afternoon of listening to a presentation in the area of your field of expertise, when the chairman rushes up to you panicked. The speaker isn’t going to get there, could you help out by taking his or her place? If you say “no” you will be thought of an “uncooperative” but if you say “yes” and do a poor presentation, it could hurt your reputation as a speaker and expert. I suggest saying, “yes” but also asking the person who is introducing you to stress “what a good sport you are to fill in.” Again, however, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared if you will be attending a program in your field of expertise. And, it should be a habit to dress well for every occasion, as if you might end up in front of the group. There is always the possibility that you will be asked to fill in for someone else.

Organize your thoughts. Hopefully, you will have some time to organize your presentation before you are “on stage.” If it is not too obvious, take a walk to a secluded area where you can think through your opening remarks (usually a good story that you’ve told many times will suffice); what three major points you will make (there are different structures that work well, for example, the past, present, and future); and what will be your conclusion (a strong closing story or a call to action will both work to your advantage). If you can’t slip away, think of these while sitting in the audience.

Take the platform with enthusiasm and confidence. Even though it is understandable that you will feel some apprehension in an impromptu experience, visualize yourself as confident and excited about the opportunity to present to a group who will be so happy and receptive that you have agreed to “save the day.” Remember that, on the whole, most audience members want you to succeed, and if the introducer has done his or her job you will be greeted with relief and pleasure. Take a moment to breathe and establish rapport. Once you start and have the audience with you, your nerves will vanish.

Never, never apologize or make excuses. The minute a presenter starts to apologize and make excuses, he or she robs him or herself of credibility, and the audience prepares for a mediocre or average presentation. Think of yourself as the hero or heroine and give the very best speech you can give on such short notice. You wouldn’t have been asked if you weren’t up to it.

Avoid the common blunders. If you haven’t had sufficient time to prepare, you must be careful not to ramble or stray from the main subject. A good practice when giving any presentation, impromptu or not, is to decide what your main point or view is, support it with facts and arguments, and stick to it. We’ve all heard speakers who talk on and on without saying anything important.

Enjoy the appreciation! Once you are finished, let the audience have time to clap and show their appreciation for a job well done. I have seen so many speakers so eager to get back to their seats, they don’t give us time to let them know how happy we are that they have shared their knowledge with us. And, appreciate yourself too! If you forgot to say something you planned to say, or think of something you should have said, no one else knows that. Be happy with what you did! We are all too hard on ourselves!

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