“Well,” Paddy started the sentence before I even got seated at the coffee shop, “even though you never asked, I got along all right during the question period at that Rotary luncheon I spoke at. But now I’ve got another speaking situation I want to talk to you about.”
“Glad you did okay,” I assured him, “but I never doubted that you would. What’s your current problem?”
“Well,” Paddy said, “my goddaughter is getting married next week and my wife and I will be going to the wedding.”
“Are you speaking?” I asked.
“Well,” Paddy stated, “that’s the problem. I don’t know. I haven’t been asked to, but I’m afraid I might get called upon to say a few words.”
“Okay, Paddy,” I said, “I completely understand your feelings. But, there’s really no need to be overly concerned.”
“Just think about it for a moment,” I went on. “Situations in which you’re apt to be asked to make a few impromptu remarks, such as this wedding, are always ones in which you will have relevant personal experiences and knowledge to draw on. You’re never going to be called upon to, as you put it, say a few words, unless you have some history with the people involved.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Paddy murmured.
“Look, Paddy,” I explained, “masters of ceremonies really mean it when they ask for ‘a few words.’ That’s really all they want, so you won’t have to speak for more than a couple of minutes. You’d be able to fill that quite nicely by telling a story involving you and your goddaughter. Remember, too, that the audience isn’t going to hold you to a very high standard. They’ll empathize with your having been put on the spot.”
“But what if I freeze up?” Paddy reasonably asked.
“There are two very effective ways of dealing with that,” I told him. “One will work almost every time, and the other will work every time.”
“Then why doesn’t everyone just use the one that works all the time?” Paddy, even more reasonably, asked.
“Because,” I said, “sometimes people forget about the sure-fire method and will have to fall back on the almost foolproof one.”
“So, what are they?” Paddy prodded.
“First of all, Paddy,” I said, “remember that the formula for a successful talk is that you must know enough about the subject to have earned the right to talk about it, that you feel strongly about the subject, and that you want to give the talk. Got that?”
“Yep,” he said.
“In any just-a-few-words situation,” I told him, “you will always know enough about what’s going on to be able to say something, so you’ve earned the right. 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 a successful talk, especially a short one, are present. In this particular case, you know your goddaughter well, you care about her, and you want to contribute to her special day.”
“I guess you’re right,” Paddy grudgingly acknowledged.
“Remember that you will have a few moments to organize your thoughts,” I told him. “If necessary, you can extend your thinking-on-your-feet-time with the ‘who, me?’ reaction. You can gain some more thinking time by slowly making your way to the lectern, and you can always pause for few more seconds when you get there.”
I took a sip of coffee and then went on. “During this thinking time ask yourself: what anecdote can I tell about my goddaughter? Usually the first thought that comes into your mind is all you’ll need to get going. Your first thought will probably be about something that happened involving the two of you. 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?”
“Yeah, I can probably do that,” Paddy admitted. “But, what’s the sure-fire, never-fail method?”
“The foolproof method does take a bit of work,” I explained, “which is why it’s neglected by most people. It really is quite simple. Any time 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’ll say if called upon. For your goddaughter’s wedding, think about the best story you can tell involving the two of you, and go over in your mind the details that you can include.”
“Should I make notes? Paddy asked.
“Sure,” I told him, “but don’t refer to them if you end up speaking, because that would spoil the spontaneity of the occasion.”
“I feel a bit better,” Paddy said as he shrugged into his coat and headed for the door, “at least I guess there’s no need to panic. That approach really works, eh?”
“Every time,” I assured him. “Just tell a story.”