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Tongue-tied at work? These tips will make you a great impromptu speaker

‘Just start talking’ is one trick to help you survive impromptu speeches.

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Imagine you're on the street, in a park or in a bar, and you see someone you would like to meet. Negative thoughts will probably pop into your mind, discouraging you from trying to make an introduction – the other person is too attractive, or likely to consider you brash, or is otherwise occupied.

But if you act within three seconds, just going up and saying hello, Andrii Sedniev says you will forestall those doubts and increase your chance of being successful. The other person will notice you and respond and, because you can't go back, you will begin a conversation that might lead to success.

He argues that this advice, gleaned from a dating course he took, also applies to impromptu public speaking in business.

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If your customer or your boss asks you to explain something and you are forced into giving a little speech, he says you will be successful if you act quickly and start talking. In this case, you have 30 seconds to act, not three seconds, but the principle of saying something – anything – remains crucial.

Mr. Sedniev is a Santa Clara, Calif.-based coach who understands the trauma that public speaking can engender. An engineer by training, he found giving speeches a big handicap and began to take courses, including at Toastmasters, as well as associated training, such as in dating, to develop the requisite skills. Although he became proficient at public speeches, he found he was still weak at impromptu talks. Given that is the kind of speaking most people face, he researched effective techniques and shares them in his e-book, Magic of Impromptu Speaking.

Start quickly

It begins with his Rule of the First Thought. "Basically you have 30 seconds to think and should start talking even if your words aren't relevant," he explained in an interview. Your mind will be working at hyper speed – we think far more quickly than we speak – and you will begin steering toward more relevant thoughts, and start to piece together a logical argument.

If you wait too long, your internal dialogue will probably paralyze you. Nothing that comes to mind will seem appropriate. Your subconscious will be blocked and analytical thinking slowed. What follows is likely to be dreadful. But by taking about 30 seconds to think and then plunging in, you can develop an approach and then count on your subconscious to carry you along with better ideas. "Before you begin speaking, it is not necessary to come up with the entire answer," he stresses in his book.

Get past yourself

Another crucial ingredient is to accept that not every answer you give will be stellar. He notes that people worry unduly that they will give a lousy answer and thus won't look good in front of their audience. That also tends to paralyze them. But the reality is that even top impromptu speakers can give bad answers. Jettisoning the hope of being stellar frees your subconscious from worrying about whether you are looking good and focuses you on the substance of the talk.

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Adopt a structure

As you're speaking, keep in mind that every speech has a structure. The most basic is an introduction, main point and conclusion. A prepared speech starts with a tantalizing hook; an impromptu speech begins with the first thought, then edges into your argument. That leads to your conclusion, which is mandatory.

"When you begin you may not know the conclusion," Mr. Sedniev said in the interview. "When you have the first thought you may not know the stories you will tell and the conclusion they will lead to. When you are talking, you decide on those stories and the argument to make and the conclusion."

There are other frameworks you can adopt. One is to tell a story, since stories are memorable, and the facts and arguments associated with stories will have cachet. He notes that even a story that is not spectacular or well told can have a dramatic effect on how your point is remembered.

"Stories are very effective. It makes your impromptu speech not impromptu. You have probably told the story before, so it's no longer impromptu. And while you're telling the story you can develop your conclusion," he said.

Another technique is called PEEP – point, explanation, example and point. Make a point at the start, in your first thought or subsequent statements. State your reason for making this point. Then give an example or illustration to back up your point (offering personal experiences will make your comments seem genuine). Finally, drive home your point again, linking the conclusion to the opening.

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A third approach is called Position, Action, Benefit. This is a corporate approach, suited to reporting to the board of directors or making a sales pitch to a CEO who is pressed for time. Start by stating your position on the issue or question. Then describe what action needs to be taken to implement your suggestion. Finally, describe the benefit of your position.

In summary: Start with a first thought within 30 seconds, concentrate on giving value rather than looking good, remember the importance of stories, and follow one of the impromptu speaking structures.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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