Impromptu Speaking

Let silence send your message!

Samuel Clements, famously known as Mark Twain, must have scared every aspiring speaker when he said –  “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” However, Twain was known to be quick-witted, humorous, and could be in the moment when called unexpectedly to speak.

I believe the secret to impromptu speaking lies in your ability to be in the moment. But first, you must have a plan. Over time, speakers should develop their strategy for speaking impromptu. Begin by focusing on the keywords of the question. Then, use your keyword as anchors at the beginning and end of your answer.

In the English Language, there are five basic types of questions. Factual, Convergent, Divergent, Evaluation and Combination. Most Toastmasters Table Topic questions are either Convergent or Divergent. Therefore, it is wise to identify the topic type as you listen carefully for subtle details hidden in the question.

 Convergent: Questions moving towards a single point challenge the cognitive thinking skills of the respondent. They are expected to offer a response that is within a finite range of acceptable accuracy. The response provided may be based on personal awareness, material read, or known. The speaker is also expected to justify their answer or give evidence to support their response.

Divergent: Questions moving toward different directions challenge the speaker to explore other avenues and create different variations and alternative scenarios. Correctness may be based on logic, projections, creation, or the speaker’s imagination. These types of questions require the speaker to analyze, evaluate or synthesize the various possible outcomes.

How you answer your question is most important. Don’t leave your audience out of the moment. Check-in with your audience. When you fail to check in – your audience will check out. A standard method used to answer Table Topic questions is the PREP formula. The acronym PREP is derived from (P) Point, (R) Reason, (E) Example (P) Point.

In Toastmasters Table Topic Competitions, each speaker is allowed 2 minutes and 30 seconds to respond to their question before disqualification. So, prepare a plan for how you are going to divvy up your allotted time. The following is my suggestion.

  •        Point – Pause – Paraphrase:             30 – Seconds
  •        Reason – Because – Justification:  30 – Seconds   
  •        Example – For Instance or Story:    30 – Seconds
  •        Point to Summarize and Close:        30 – Seconds

Note the speaker will still have 30 seconds left. After you have delivered your summary, hand control back to the Chair. Stop talking! Let silence send your message.

Table Topic contests judging are like any humorous or international speech contest. The suggested point values are Speech Development 30 pts, Effectiveness 25 pts, Physical 15 Pts, Voice 15pts, and Language 15pts. When your answer is different enough to stand out from the rest of the crowd, you will most likely win the judges’ hearts and minds.

We all know nothing in life is absolute. But just as there are two sides to a coin, there are two sides to an argument or a Divergent question – Make sure you address both sides; the pros and cons. A referee with a two-headed coin is biased. Similarly, addressing only one side of a discussion will divide your audience and your judges. So show both sides of the coin to your audience.

Your summary and closing must have a lingering effect on your audience. You don’t have to be an expert on the subject you are addressing. However, by relating the question to a real-life event or a familiar theme, you should get a boost of energy. So, relax, and get to work without hesitation. Be in the moment.

Before you begin to speak, let your body language show your appreciation for the question. With a smile, check in with your audience, then paraphrase or restate the question. If possible, add a twist to your paraphrase to make a stronger connection. Then, address the question as if you are the expert in the room. You must convince your audience that you know what you are talking about.

Table Topics in Toastmasters is intended to help members develop their ability to organize their thoughts quickly and respond to an impromptu question or topic. Two past Presidents I have always admired for handling difficult questions were Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton. They were both quick-witted, Regan especially. He mastered the art of turning questions on its head in a flash with humor.

When speakers can get their audience to laugh, think profoundly, or look at a problem differently, they will be rewarded by their judges and audiences. So perhaps Mark Twain was right; maybe it does take three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech, but I will add, except for when that impromptu speaker is in the moment, with a plan.

Author: HenryOMiller

Henry joined Toastmaster in March of 1997. He is presently a member of five clubs in Santa Cruz and San Jose. Henry is an executive speech coach, humorist, and speechwriter. He is also a musician and a lyricist​ whose speechwriting approach is similar to his approach to songwriting.