How to get better at impromptu speaking

My definition of professional torture goes something like this...

I'm in a meeting surrounded by people I don't know who are more powerful and important than me.

I'm thrilled to have earned my seat at this VIP table. It's my opportunity to shine. I feel the pressure. I want to make a stellar impression.

All of a sudden my boss throws it over to me to talk about a topic I'm unfamiliar with. I've had no warning or time to prepare.

I can feel the spotlight on me. Next I feel face start to burn bright red. Unprepared and nervous, I fumble through a response. My voice cracks a little while I'm talking. I can feel people's eyes burning into me. 

When I finally finish talking I get slightly confused looks back in return. I'm not really sure what I just said, but I can tell already my words didn't have the desired impact. My boss rescues me from certain professional death by saying, "I think what Sarah is trying to say is..." 

Being asked to speak off-the-cuff is an essential tool every ambitious business professional needs to develop and master. It comes naturally to some people but most of us need to work on it. 

After suffering through variations of this scenario over the years, I finally decided enough was enough. I had to tackle this with measurable goals and with productive strategies. I made it a goal to never let this scenario happen again.

Here's how I tacked and improved my ability to speak to white space.

1. See it as an opportunity

I shifted my thinking about impromptu speaking from one of terror and dread to thinking about it as a genuine opportunity.

I thought of it as just another skill I needed to learn and master. I told myself I can learn to do it better. That small shift in mindset made a tremendous difference to my approach and confidence.

2. Pause. Don't talk right away

When the time comes to talk, don't. Pause before you say anything.

Taking an extra couple of seconds gives you valuable time to gather your thoughts and to think up a quick structure for your response.

Most people in this scenario just start talking. When you pause, you appear more considered, polished and in control of the situation. Even if you don't feel it.

3. Add structure

Don't say the first thing that pops into your head.

Use whatever time you have to pull your thoughts together into a basic structure. Depending on the situation, that might be a few seconds or a few minutes.

A good basic structure looks like this: Position, Reason, Example, Position or PREP.

State your position, give a reason for your position, give an example and conclude by restating your position again. If you have more time, repeat the same again with a different example.

4. Say less

With a basic structure in place, you still need to keep it short. Saying more almost never adds value.

I like this quote from Franklin F. Roosevelt in this scenario—"Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated."

Most people tend to ramble on when faced with white space. Don't fall into this trap. You're unlikely to add value by turning it into an unstructured monologue. If you stick to a structure, like the one outlined above, you should be able to contain your response and be brief. 

5. Practice! A lot!

Practice and getting regular feedback is the best way to improve your impromptu speaking skills.

Every time I'm in this scenario at the office, I look for someone in my challenge network to provide with feedback on my performance.

Rather than waiting for opportunities to come up in the work setting, I created regular practice opportunities for myself by joining a local Toastmasters.

Most people think Toastmasters is for practicing giving speeches, and it is. It's also an opportunity to practice impromptu speaking in a safe and supported environment.

Every meeting has a section called Table Topics. Members are asked to stand up in front of the group and answer a question off-the-cuff and with no time to prepare an answer.

The nature of questions don't matter, and neither do your answers. A question I had recently was, "If you could be a fruit, which one would you be and why?"

I'm never going to answer that question in a work scenario (okay, maybe in an obscure job interview). But I'm getting valuable opportunities to practice and refine my impromptu speaking skills when I talk about myself as having come from a warm climate with the thick skin and soft center of a banana.

Should you focus on your strengths or improve your weaknesses?

I had the opportunity to ask a senior executive at a Women In Tech event recently whether one should focus on bolstering their strengths or improving their weaknesses. She told me you should always focus on improving your strengths.

I recently learned more about my strengths through a formal assessment called the Clifton Strengths assessment.

The Clifton Strengths assessment asks you to rate yourself on a simple scale across 177 different items. At the end you get a top 5 list of your strengths.

According to the Clifton Strengths assessment my strengths are—I like to solve problems (restorative), I like to ponder the future (futuristic), I like people (relator), I like to learn new things (learner) and I'm inquisitive about everything (input).

That's great! Now I know my strengths, should I focus on improving them like the executive I spoke to advised? Or should I look for obvious gaps and focus on those?

I've been pondering this for a couple of weeks. After doing some reading, this is where I landed.

Knowing your strengths is useful but it doesn't tell you if you're actually good at any of them. It also doesn't tell you how good your strengths are in relation to other people. 

A persistent focus on strengths can blind you to the hard truths about yourself. Really smart and capable people can have glaring weak spots and counterproductive work habits. There may be aspects of your performance you could improve, but you risk never finding those weaker areas if you continually focus on what you're good at.

That's why it's important to get honest and constructive feedback. It can be difficult to get and is dependent on the work culture you're in, how open you are to coaching and how effective your boss is at providing it. Coaching can help improve weak areas as an avenue for professional growth and it has research evidence to support its effectiveness.

Instead of focusing on your strengths, a better way is to develop your self-awareness. Work hard, know yourself and know what you want to achieve. Let your goals dictate where you put your energy and focus, regardless of whether they're a strength or a weakness. Setting incremental goals and adapting to feedback is a growth mindset and a better path to achieving higher success.


Read more:

Why you need a challenge network

Adam Grant recently started a new weekly podcast called WorkLife. I highly recommend adding it to your list of must-listen podcasts each week. 

The first episode is about criticism in the workplace. More specifically it's about why you should like it and why you should want more of it. 

Grant interviews Ray Dalio the CEO of Bridgewater Associates—widely known as the most successful hedge fund in the world. Bridgewater is known for its unique workplace culture of radical transparency. Employees at Bridgewater give each other immediate, candid feedback, all the time. Opinions are out in the open.

Bridgewater's culture of always-on radical transparency is extreme. The point Grant makes is there's value in getting regular, constructive feedback on your performance. Grant champions the idea of developing your own mini-version of Bridgewater's radical transparency via a challenge network—a group of individuals you trust to give you regular and constructive feedback.

To develop your challenge network you have to do two things, a) be open to receiving negative feedback and b) be prepared to actively ask for it. A robust challenge network turns every meeting, every presentation, and every communication into an avenue for development and growth.

Keep in mind also, most people don't actively ask for feedback. If they do, it's usually only from their immediate leader. Once you start asking for constructive feedback from your peers or others you work alongside, it's an easy way to stand out and to showcase your willingness to improve and grow. Do it right and you'll learn a lot about yourself along the way, too.