There are few things as startling than to be enjoying yourself at a function and suddenly realizing that the emcee’s sentence which began with, “And now a few words from…” ended with your name. The thought of having to unexpectedly “say a few words” often paralyzes even seasoned speakers. But, there’s really no need to panic; by heeding the following advice you will always be able to acquit yourself well.
Situations in which you’re asked to make impromptu remarks, such as weddings, retirement parties, and community events, are all such that you will have relevant personal experiences and knowledge on which to draw. At a wedding reception or retirement party you’re not going to be called upon unless you have some history with the people involved. And, you likely wouldn’t be at a community event if you had no interest in its purpose. Also, there are two other reasons why you shouldn’t be fussed.
First, emcees really mean it when they say “a few words.” In these circumstances you aren’t expected to speak for more than a minute or two and you can succeed quite nicely by telling a story about the friend who’s getting married or the colleague who’s retiring. Similarly, if you get called upon at a community event, you can always get by with making one point backed up with an example or two supporting why you feel the way you do. Second, the audience will completely empathize with you for being put on the spot and won’t hold you to a very high standard.
But what if hearing your name called does momentarily paralyze your brain? Well, there are two effective methods for dealing with this. One will probably work every time, and the other is guaranteed to work every time. I’ll outline both because people generally neglect the guaranteed method and have to fall back on the almost-foolproof one, which I will describe first.
As already mentioned, in these situations you will always have enough knowledge to enable you to “say a few words.” You will very likely care about the people or the subject matter involved, and you can easily rationalize wanting to speak, if for no other reason than to avoid the embarrassment of not doing so. Therefore, all the elements of a successful talk are present.
You will always have a few moments to organize your thoughts. If necessary, you can extend your thinking time with the “Who, me?” reaction. You can buy more time by slowly making your way to the lectern and you can always pause for few more seconds when you get there. At the community event you can gain even more thinking time by asking a clarifying question or two.
During this thinking time ask yourself, “What can I say about this person or topic?” Usually the first thought that comes to mind is the best one to work with. If it’s a social event, your first thought will likely be 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 community event, ask yourself how you feel about the topic, why you feel the way you do, and what illustrations or examples you can use to back up your views.
The guaranteed method, although quite easy to describe, requires a bit of work, which is why it’s neglected by most people. It’s simply this: any time you’re going to be in a situation where there is even a remote possibility of being asked to “say a few words,” decide beforehand what you’re going to say if called upon.
For example, if you’re going to a wedding reception, think about a story you could tell and what details you could include. If you’re going to a meeting, think about how you feel about its purpose and decide what points you’d make and what illustrations and examples you could use to back up your position. Although it’s fine to jot down a few notes, if you are called upon don’t refer to them when you’re speaking. To do so would spoil the spontaneity of the occasion, raise the audience’s expectations, and likely reduce their appreciation of your ability to “say a few words.”