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Being prepared to speak off the cuff starts with knowing your stuff, from subject and product information to general information, to experiential knowledge.g-stockstudio/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Impromptu speaking is critical to work. So be prepared.

That sounds like a contradiction: How can you be prepared for something impromptu? But Judith Humphrey, founder of the Toronto-based leadership communication consultancy The Humphrey Group, says you can and should be prepared for the many impromptu-speaking opportunities you encounter.

Preparation includes being knowledgeable on subjects you will face, learning how to read an audience, and becoming adept at using her script template that allows you – in five minutes or five seconds – to outline a powerful impromptu pitch. "Impromptu is not winging it. It's preparing yourself to be spontaneous," she says in an interview.

Ms. Humphrey, a former speechwriter, wrote her first book, Speaking as a Leader, about formal speeches in 2012. But these days, she sees the impetus for impromptu speaking growing as organizations flatten. It used to be that top executives set out the key messages, with people in the ranks not having such opportunities or simply echoing the boss. But today, people at all levels are sending important messages to colleagues and clients, from sales visits to chats with a co-worker walking in from the parking lot, so she tackles that in her latest book, Impromptu. "You need an ability to organize your thoughts in the moment. Often people, when they start speaking, don't know what they want to say. That's why you hear a lot of 'ahhs' or 'What I meant to say was ...'" she says in an interview.

It starts with knowing your stuff, from subject and product information to general information, to experiential knowledge. In her book, she mentions the viral video of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explaining quantum computing when he visited the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., last year. Subject knowledge carried that day for him. In the interview, she notes how Robert Kennedy's love of poetry allowed him to quote the Greek poet Aeschylus in his moving tribute after Martin Luther King's assassination. You also should be able to draw from your experiences, such as comments various clients have made about your product.

It's also critical to be able to read your audience – before, during, and after a talk. Who is in the audience, and what are their needs? Are they paying attention as you speak or does their body language suggest they are confused or don't care? How did that talk go?

Her handy script template for you to follow has these components:


This is a bridge from the previous speaker or comments to you and your points. It provides some space between speakers, focus and context. Formal speeches can begin with an anecdote or joke but in an impromptu situation it's a short comment, such as, "I agree with the last point."


This is your main point, ideally one idea presented in a single sentence. It should be engaging, carry your convictions, and be positive. "It's so important to know what you're saying and to say it well. To say it well, you need to get to the point quickly," Ms. Humphrey says. Too often we struggle, taking a number of sentences to find our point. She says in some contexts, such as talking to a client, you should know the message already. If not, sometimes you can delay speaking, while others talk and you figure out your crystallized comment. If asked a question and you find yourself struggling for the nugget answer, she suggests responding with a grabber and then pausing until you can clarify the exact message. "The pause seems long to the speaker but not the audience. A pause can make you look thoughtful," Ms. Humphrey says. And on balance, be positive. If the situation you are addressing is negative, slide into the positive aspect: What can be done to improve.


You now need two to four points that back your main message. They may be reasons why the statement is correct, ways to achieve the course of action you are proposing, or actions that flow from the situation you have outlined. Build your case, but don't go overboard on the number of supporting points you offer.


A formal speech ends with a summary. But an impromptu speech is short and there is no need to repeat. Instead, you end with a call to action. "If you turn the message into action you will have led. This is essentially leadership – getting people to believe, move, achieve and perform at a higher level. It's about action," Ms Humphrey says.

She believes most people fail at impromptu speaking because they believe they don't have to be scripted. So be prepared for your next impromptu talk, keeping her template in mind. Find the essence of your message, lay out the proof, and take people with you.

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