Public Speaking Success Preparation Help (page 3)

Updated on Sep 28, 2011

Impromptu Speeches

We touched on this type of speech earlier when we considered special occasion speeches, noting that they can be the most intimidating type of speech. But the fact is that you give impromptu speeches all the time—you just don't realize it. When you get together with a group of friends to hang out and talk, you are making an impromptu speech. When a professor asks you a question in class, you answer with an impromptu speech.

An impromptu speech is one that is given on the spur of the moment, without advance notice. Ironically, the Latin phrase in promptu(from which this word is drawn) actually means "to have at hand, to be in readiness." And this little piece of etymology gives away the big secret: The best impromptu speeches are not really unprepared at all, they are just given promptly!

You'll remember that we made this observation back in Lesson 5: Be prepared in advance to be asked unexpectedly. If you're attending a special function, ask yourself if you might possibly be asked to "say a few words." If there's any chance of that whatsoever, give some thought in advance to what you'll say if asked. Then you'll be in readiness, and you'll have an outline at hand.

Even if you should find yourself caught off-guard in a public speaking situation, you can still follow these guidelines to make a great speech:

  • Be brief.Just as practice is important with most types of speeches, so brevity is critical to the impromptu speech. Speaking off the cuff has many pitfalls, not the least of which is the danger of saying something you'll regret. Keep it short and to the point—then sit down.
  • Remember the audience and the setting.It's likely that you know at least something about the people you're with when asked to deliver an impromptu speech. Before you start speaking, ask yourself what will be appropriate for the audience—and what might be inappropriate. Select a topic that is pertinent to the occasion, and make the tone match. Humor is appropriate at a celebration, but it must be used with a measure of sensitivity at a memorial service.
  • Make it personal.That is, personal to you—not to specific members of the audience. People love to hear stories and anecdotes, so draw from your own experience to make an apt illustration. Using someone in the audience as the focus of your story, however, runs a grave risk of offending. Avoid this at all costs!
  • Bite your tongue.If you're like me, you'll get up unexpectedly to say a few words and suddenly think of a humorous observation on some extraneous topic. I've learned from very painful experience that this can be a deadly trap. I once made a grossly insensitive comment on the food service at a speech location, only to find out later that I'd injured the feelings of a blind person. If only I could have gone back in time and shut my mouth! Remember our favorite maxim: When in doubt, leave it out.

The practice exercise for this study guide can be found at: Public Speaking Success Preparation Practice.

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