Sometimes impromptu speaking tasks sneak up on you, quick-like: Maybe your boss asks you to spend a few minutes providing a status report on your team’s project. Perhaps you’re in a training seminar or a graduate school classroom and have been asked to explain your views on a topic of interest. Or the informal chat followed by Q&A session you thought you had lined up at the Garden Club is billed as a “short talk” by you, “the expert”, instead.
Regardless of the scenario, impromptu speaking almost always involves you with a few short minutes to get your head together and figure out what is going to come out of your mouth while members of a small or large audience gaze expectantly in your direction. What’s your first move?
Understand audience expectations and, to whatever extent possible, your audience. Make sure you understand what is being asked of you in this talk…and how much time you have to deliver it.
(We’re going with a maximum 5 minute talk in these particular scenarios. The truth is, it’s harder to organize a brief talk effectively because you don’t have the luxury of a few interesting stories, lots of examples, the chance to get lost for a few minutes but eventually find your way back to the main idea again, or give and take from the audience. You have 5 minutes.)
Take a breath or two. Find a quiet spot if possible to gather thoughts fast. Even 5 words on a scrap of paper might be your lifeline.
OR – is your main idea that “Overall, the project is going well”? Then you might save some room in your simple mental or written outline to address both the positive points as well as areas in need of improvement, again providing at least a bit of support for each point you make. (“…While the team is pleased with staying under budget and producing quality work, it does look as though our first estimates for the rollout were a bit ambitious. Getting the approvals we needed from HQ took longer than expected due to…”)
If time allows, decide how you actually want to end your talk—it can be simple—restate your main idea, thank people for their time, and offer to take questions or to address questions after the event, as appropriate. Better to have something easy and definitive to say than to just sort of fade away with a “That’s it, I guess….”
You may note that when I wrote “Take a breath”, it was before you started the important work of simply structuring your talk. Now that you are ready to actually open your mouth, you can take a couple more deep breaths and smile at the audience, confident that you have the main deliverable ready to go: a well-structured idea, supported by data, and organized in a listener-friendly way.
“BBQ Clock” by Dimitris Papazoglou