If you are like most people, there are few things that will strike more fear into your heart than to be enjoying yourself at a wedding, retirement party or community event and then suddenly realizing that the master of ceremonies’ sentence that began with, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll have a few words from…” actually ended with your name. Or possibly you’re at a meeting where you thought the sole purpose of your attendance would be to listen to what others have to say and you’re unexpectedly asked for your views.
Because people realize when this happens that they have just become, unexpectedly and usually unwillingly, the center of attention, the prospect of having to make impromptu remarks often paralyzes even seasoned speakers. There’s really no need for panic.
Think about it for a moment. Situations in which you’re apt to be asked to make a few impromptu remarks, such as weddings, retirement parties and meetings, are all such that you will always have relevant personal experiences and knowledge that you can draw on. At a wedding reception or retirement party you’re not going to be called upon to say a few words unless you have some history with the people involved. And, as far as meetings are concerned, even if your attendance was mandated rather than purely voluntary, you’d hardly be there if you had no interest in the topic being discussed; in fact, you’ll probably have a keen interest in the subject.
You will always be able to acquit yourself well by simply thinking on your feet, which will be no problem if you follow the advice contained in this article. Do so, and you will soon have no fear whatsoever about unexpectedly being called upon to speak.
There are two other reasons why you should never be too fussed about having to make some impromptu remarks.
First, masters of ceremonies really mean it when they ask for “a few words.” You actually shouldn’t speak for more than one to three minutes, and you can succeed quite nicely by telling a story about the friend who’s getting married or retiring. Similarly, if you aren’t formally on the agenda at a meeting but do get called upon, you can always get by with making one point backed up with a couple of examples indicating why you feel the way you do. Second, in these circumstances the audience or your colleagues aren’t going to hold you to a very high standard because they will empathize with your having been put on the spot. As mentioned, at the social event just tell an anecdote or two, and at the meeting make a salient point, and your reputation will be enhanced.
But what if hearing your name being called does momentarily paralyze your brain? Well, there are two effective methods for dealing with these situations. One will work almost every time, and the other will work every time. The reason I’m giving you both is that you may sometimes forget about the sure-fire method and will have to fall back on the almost foolproof one. We’ll deal with the almost-foolproof method first.
As already mentioned, in any impromptu speaking situation you will always have enough knowledge of the topic to enable you to say something, you will very likely care in some way about the subject, and you can easily rationalize wanting to say a few words, if for no other reason than to avoid the embarrassment of not doing so. Therefore, all the elements of the formula for a successful talk are present.
In the social situations you will always have a few moments to organize your thoughts. If necessary, you can extend your thinking-on-your-feet-time with the “Who, me?” reaction. You can create even more thinking time by slowly making your way to the podium or to the front of the room, and you can always pause for few more seconds when you get there. In a meeting you can buy some more thinking time, if necessary, by asking a clarifying question or two.
During this thinking time ask yourself, “What can I say about this person or topic?” as the case might be. Usually the very first thought that comes into your mind is all that you will need to get you going. If it’s a person (the wedding reception or retirement party) your first thought will probably be about something that happened involving at least two of you who are in the room. Just tell that story by answering the classic journalistic questions: What happened? Who was involved? Why did it happen? When did it happen? Where did it happen? How did it happen? At the meeting, ask yourself, “How do I feel about this topic?” “Why do I feel this way?” and “What illustrations or examples can I use to back up my views?”
Now let’s look at the foolproof method. Although quite simple to describe, the foolproof method for a successful impromptu speaking experience does require a bit of work, which why it’s neglected by most people. Here it is. Any time you know that you’re going to be in a situation where there is any possibility whatsoever, no matter how remote, of being asked to “say a few words,” decide beforehand exactly what you’re going to say if called upon.
For example if you’re going to a wedding reception or a retirement party, think about a story you could tell if asked to speak, and go over in your mind some of the details that you would include. If you’re going to be attending a meeting, review the agenda, think about how you feel about each item, and decide what points you’d make should the opportunity arise and what illustrations and examples you can use to back up your position. Although it’s perfectly in order to jot down a few notes, if you’re called upon don’t refer to them when you are speaking. To do so would spoil the spontaneity of the occasion, raise the audience’s expectations and, very likely, reduce their appreciation of your ability to think on your feet.
Earning the reputation as a person who is good at thinking on your feet will enhance your reputation as a leader and communicator as well as increase your overall confidence in handling unexpected situations, all of which will contribute enormously in your overall success in reaching your potential.
Once you get accustomed to using the techniques outlined above don’t be surprised if you become disappointed any time you’re not asked to say a few words.