Speaking Off-the-Cuff Without Sounding Off-the-Wall

answer questions

As you become known as a public speaker, you may be asked to speak more at work, often with little or no preparation.  If you have a few minutes to prepare, you can write a speech in 5 minutes.  But, sometimes people want an answer now!

Becoming more proficient at impromptu speaking can propel your career and position you as a thought-leader and team player who can clearly and confidently get a point across.

To become better at impromptu speaking situations you need to address three basic elements:




The first element, preparation, may seem odd for speaking-off-the cuff, but it is crucial for impromptu speaking at work.  You have to know your stuff.  You have to know the staff (the people involved). You have to know the situation.  You need to have deep knowledge on your area of expertise and wide knowledge on the organization (mission, goals, history).  You need to know the people involved—their functional areas, their responsibilities, their personalities and how they all fit together.  And, you need to know the situation—the time of year (sales cycle, production cycle, etc.) and current specific information.  If you are going to a meeting, for example, expect that you may be asked to speak on something relevant to the meeting topic and prepare a few points.

The second element, patterns, simply means that you can structure your response to fit a pattern, which gives you a comfortable framework for your response and makes you sound quite articulate.  Below are eight patterns plus some opening and closing techniques:

1. PREP 

PREP is an acronym for Point, Reason, Example and Point.

Point:  State your main point, or opinion

Reason:  Give one or more reasons

Example:  Give an example.

Point:  Restate your point or opinion “So, that’s why I think . . .”

By using an example (or telling a relevant story), you don’t have to think too hard about what you will say next. Plus, examples always get people’s attention and give them something concrete to hook your point on to.  If people can remember your example, they are more likely to remember your point.  Examples can be used in all of the following patterns.

You can recycle the PREP pattern if you have more than one point.

2. Problem/Solution

Here are a couple of variations, too:

Problem/Cause/Solution—add in the cause if the cause is not known.

CAR:  Challenge, Action, Result.  This pattern variation is especially useful if you are being interviewed for a job or need to toot your own horn in a performance review.  Tell about the challenge that was faced, then tell about the action you took and finally, tell about the positive result of your action.

3. Pros and Cons

Present the pros and cons of something, but if you want to be persuasive, one case should be weaker than the other, so you can end by taking a stand.

4. Chronological

Typically you would use past, present, future, but if you are trying to cast a vision you could change up the order to be future vision, relevant past, present action needed.

5. Process

Describe a process:  first, second, third.

6. Topical

Explore an issue topically, taking first one topic and then the next.

7.  Spatial/geographical 

Sometimes it makes sense to talk about something based on location.

8. Five Ws 

Use this journalistic technique to address the Who, What, When, Where and Why in giving background information.

Start out with one or two patterns that seem the most useful for the types of questions you most often get.  The PREP pattern is probably the most generally useful pattern.

The trickiest parts of impromptu speaking are the opening and the closing.

Opening techniques: 

  • Listen to the question carefully.
  • Listen for key words and repeat them in your response. In the opening example, the key words are “budget allocations.”
  • Ask questions to clarify the question, if needed (plus you will come across as a good listener).
  • Repeat or rephrase the question (and it’s OK to repeat it more than once, which will buy you some time and sound like you are building up to your response).
  • Reframe the question to a more positive question, if necessary.  For example, if someone asks you the loaded question, “Why do you charge so much?” empathize and redirect the question to one you want to answer.  “I can understand your concern about price.  I believe you are really concerned about whether you are getting a good value.  This is a good value because . . .”
  • Pause before answering.  Take a breath.  Think.  And then, answer.  A thoughtful pause before a direct answer is better than a quick and rambling response.
  • Defer.  If another person is available who would have a better response, let them answer the question.

Closing techniques:

  • Repeat (or rephrase) your main point, using key words.
  • Recap your reasons.
  • Reaffirm understanding (“does that make sense?”) and mutually agree on next steps.

Finally, the third element, practice. How can you practice impromptu speaking?  Take the opportunity to speak up in lower-stakes situations—in conversations with friends, family and coworkers.  Make a game of it!  At meals have people write a word or phrase on a slip of paper to give to someone else. Then each person has to speak for a couple of minutes on a topic. Consider joining Toastmasters, where every meeting features an impromptu speaking segment.  Take an improv class to help you get better at thinking on your feet.  And, if you are really self-motivated, practice responses to work related questions on the way to or from work.

Prepare. Use patterns. Practice.  Speak off-the-cuff without sounding off-the-wall!

What have you found to be useful in impromptu speaking?

How to Write an Inspiring Speech

When I was 17, at the start of my senior year of high school, my parents got a divorce.  Not only did their marriage crumble, but so did my hopes of college.  How would I ever pay for it? I descended to the valley of despair.

And then one day, waiting at the dentist, I picked up a newsletter.  It was for the local chapter of the Association for Retarded Citizens.   I must have been waiting a long time.

I flipped it open and saw a poem by Amanda Bradley—a poem I have carried in my wallet for 33 years.

“Follow Your Dream”

Follow your dream . . . take one step at a time
And don’t settle for less, just continue to climb.
Follow your dream . . . if you stumble don’t stop
And lose sight of your goal, press on to the top.
For only on top can we see the whole view,
Can we see what we’ve done and what we can do,
Can we then have the vision to seek something new
Press on and follow your dream.

The words inspired me.  They lifted me out of the Valley of Despair and gave me hope to climb to the mountain top, to follow my dream.

The mountain climber picture at the top is how I saw it in my mind’s eye—I just needed to get up the mountain and then I could see the whole view

So, I took on 2 part time jobs during my senior year.  The first was clerking at a drug store.  The second was applying for scholarships—I probably applied for about 50.   That year, through both saving money and receiving scholarships, I was able to pay for college—the whole 4 years on less than a year’s effort.

Imagine the lives you could touch . . . with your inspiring words.  And you don’t even have to be a poet!

What does it mean to inspire?

Is inspiration the same as motivation?

If I offered you $100 or $10,000 to give a short speech right now, you might be motivated to do so.  But would you be inspired?  No. If instead, I offered you the chance to make a difference by speaking on behalf of a cause you cared deeply about, you’d probably do it for free, or even pay to have the privilege of speaking.

Inspiration is a pull.  Motivation is push.

Inspiration means to “breathe life into.”

How do you develop content that inspires, that is the breath of life for your audience?

There are 3 basic steps:

  1. Begin with why
  2. State a clear vision
  3. Appeal to emotions

 First, begin with Why.  There are 4 Why questions you need to answer:

Why this subject? Why you?  Why this audience? Why now?

Why this subject?  Is this a subject that is important, that has lasting significance? Will the audience be challenged?  People aren’t inspired by the ordinary.

Why you?  Why do you care?  If you don’t care, why should the audience?  And, are you credible on this topic? You probably can’t inspire people to make healthy life choices if you are an overweight, unemployed alcoholic.  But if you were an overweight, unemployed alcoholic and you are now slim, sober and successful, you are a credible source of hope.

Why this audience?  Not all topics resonate with every audience.  For example, the importance of retirement planning is not likely to resonate with teenagers.

Why now?  Timing does matter.  Trying to inspire a teenage girl to practice abstinence when she’s already pregnant is poor timing.

Second, state a clear vision.  Show them what could be, what is possible.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said that the United States should set the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” by the end of the decade.

On July 20, 1969, when I was 7 years old, I sat glued in front of the black and white images, and watched Neil Armstrong become the first man to step foot on the moon.  “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

John F Kennedy’s words inspired dreams and mobilized financial resources.

Third, appeal to emotions.

The main way to appeal to emotions is to tell a story of overcoming, one that gives hope.

A few months ago, someone posted a video on Facebook, titled “The Amazing Transformation of a Guy Who Didn’t Give up!  This was a 5 minute video, which by internet standards is a little long, but I clicked on it anyway.

It’s  about a 47 year old disabled veteran. For 15 years doctors had told him he would never walk again without assistance—he needed knee braces, a back brace and 2 canes.  He basically gave up and gained weight—a lot of weight.  He couldn’t walk or run.  Exercise seemed impossible.  Most yoga instructors turned him away—all but one–the one who believed in him when no one else did. He started doing yoga and fell many times.  But he got back up.  Again and again.  He started to believe it could happen . . .  “Just because I can’t do it today, doesn’t mean I can’t do it someday.”  He lost 140 pounds in 10 months.  And the doctors were wrong. Not only could he walk without assistance, but he could run.  His message of hope: Never underestimate what you can accomplish when you believe in yourself.  Never give up.

Of course, the visuals, the sound track, and the quotes (his own in this case, but you can also find relevant inspiring quotes on just about any topic) all added to the inspiration.

Imagine the lives you could touch with your inspiring words.  Begin with the why.  State a clear vision.  Appeal to emotions.

Take your audiences to the mountain top, where they can then have the vision to seek something new.

How to Structure Your Business Proposal Presentations

Following up on last week’s Killer Keynote Speech Structure Post, is another speech structure, the Business Proposal Speech.  Many of the same supporting structures (Story,   Humor, Activity, Reference/Quote, Props/Photos) can be used in a business proposal as in a keynote, but a different structure can be more effective.

A typical business presentation might look like this, an expanded version of the problem/solution organization:

  • Define objective (purpose)
  • Describe current state (pain)
  • Describe desired state (pleasure)
  • Describe obstacles (preclusions)
  • List possible solutions with pros and cons of each (pros and cons)
  • Identify best solution, focusing on benefits (proposal)
  • Close with action and/or agreement (path)

You can switch the order of the components.  In fact, it can be extremely effective to share a vision of what could be (desired state/pleasure) before the current state (pain).  That creates a pull toward the pleasure before the push away from the pain.  I’ve show that revised order in the Business Proposal Presentation graphic.

An effective business proposal presentation structure takes your client from pain to pleasure on your proposed path.