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.