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:

Preparation

Patterns

Practice

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?