Off the cuff: How to give an impromptu speech without embarrassing yourself

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“And now I’d like to invite him up here to say a few words. David, take it away.” Words that to this day fill me with dread.

Impromptu speaking

When prepared, I’m a decent public speaker. As a speech pathologist and lawyer, I know a fair bit about voice control, effective gestures, good enunciation, and the need for compelling content. But impromptu speakers – speakers who are great at standing up and giving speeches without much preparation time – need additional qualities, including:

  • an understanding of the mechanics of speech structure; and
  • the ability to put thoughts together on the spot (Billings & Billings, 2014).

I’ve never been good at speaking off the cuff. But, after more than a few lacklustre efforts over the years, I decided to read up on how experts in competitive impromptu speaking do it.

Why does it matter?

In most businesses, good oral communication skills are essential. On this, universities, government agencies and employers agree (e.g. Robles, 2012). But in high school and university, most students receive more practice with writing than speaking (e.g. Nelson et al., 1992; Russ, 2009). Impromptu speaking practice prepares students to communicate intelligently on the spur of the moment (e.g. Preston, 1990), e.g. when called by an irate client, when asked to brief senior stakeholders at short notice, or when unexpectedly called on to give a speech at a work or social event.

It turns out that there is a whole speaking circuit dedicated to the art of giving a speech on the spot. Impromptu speaking coaches have developed a few tricks along to way to help students/competitors to do it well.

Here’s a few tips and tricks from the experts:

1. Use the Unified Analysis Structure

Many competitive impromptu speakers structure their speeches using a “unified analysis structure” (e.g. Billings & Billings, 2005). This structure is built on the idea that, in an impromptu speech, you should “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them”.

This basic structure was designed for arguing a point or “thesis” without notice, e.g. based on a famous quote. But, as the name suggests, it can be adapted for any speech. It goes like this:

Attention-getter: a story, anecdote or colourful example that relates to the topic of your talk.

Thesis (argument): the “nugget of truth” you want to convey – the thesis of the talk.

Preview main points: why and how you agree or disagree with the statement.

Point 1: argument supporting thesis.

A. Example A supporting point 1

B. Example B supporting point 1

Point 2: argument supporting thesis

A. Example A supporting point 2

B. Example B supporting point 2

Conclusion: tied back to the Attention-getter.

2. Use the “Newspaper Trick” to come up with good examples to support your argument/comments

Some competitive public speakers use the “newspaper” approach to generate concrete examples quickly. Back in the olden days, when we all read physical broadsheets or tabloids, newspapers were divided into lift-out sections, e.g.:

  • current news;
  • money/economics;
  • sport; and
  • entertainment/arts.

These four areas can be used as a framework to generate your four examples.

If you have no knowledge about one or more of these areas, simply substitute it with something you do know about, e.g. history, poetry, science, or technology.

3. Pre-prepare concrete examples for unprepared remarks

Some researchers recommend keeping an “impromptu notebook” to record colourful, interesting examples of things that might work well in a speech at some point. I love this idea. It reduces the risk you’ll go blank (which has happened to me).

Sources for your notebook could include the news, movies, books, plays, current and historical events, theories, laws, poetry, philosophy, song lyrics, sports, amusing anecdotes, and even jokes you overhear on the bus or memes read on social media.

4. Practice, practice, practice

Competitive impromptu speakers in training might practice 3-6 speeches in an hour. As with many skills, practice and feedback improves performance. It can also “desensitise” nervous speakers to public speaking pressures, reducing anxiety in the process (Yale, 2014).

So does it work? An “off the cuff” example

Just say you’re at a work function to celebrate your team’s stellar results for the quarter. Just before the speeches, your boss gets an urgent call from head office. As she leaves to take the call, she asks you to say a few words to the team. How could we use the tips above to generate a passable speech?

Here’s my attempt (I gave myself 1 minute to think about it to emulate the scenario. I was going for solid, rather than amazing speech, and resisted the urge to edit it so you can see me trying to apply the tips above as I go):

[Attention-getter]: “When I first joined [company], I immediately started looking for a new job somewhere else. Team morale was low. Cultural clashes and mis-communications were everyday events. Meetings went forever, but nothing seemed to change. We all spent a lot of the day gossiping about each other; blaming each other for all the problems. Our competitors were crushing us like bugs, and we were miserable.

[Thesis]: But, as I got to know you all at the coal face, I discovered that, buried under all this bureaucracy, and sniping and frustration and fear, was a wealth of real talent. A diamond mine. We just had to uncover it. I realised that the main reason everyone was so irritated was that you all wanted us to succeed, even though we weren’t. I think two things helped us turn things around: our diversity and team spirit.

[Point 1]: Recognising that our diversity was a strength.

Example 1 (news): When I look at the news, and social media, I sometimes despair. People reading news only from sources that they agree with. People exchanging views with like-minded people on Twitter and Facebook, ridiculing others who disagree with them as idiots and “trolls”. What makes me so proud to be part of this team is our willingness to respectfully disagree with each other, to compromise and to find solutions to accommodate multiple points of views. Our clients benefit from this creativity, and from the energy created by our sometimes animated internal discussions. We’re not an echo chamber filled with yes women and men shouting in unison.

Example 2 (economics): At a time of economic uncertainty – e.g. Brexit and growing rhetoric about a US-China trade war – we are operating seamlessly across borders better than ever before. Our ability to bring in multiple work teams across time zones to deliver complex services under-budget and before deadlines leaves our competitors in the dust. I’m proud of the fact that, regardless of our different local conditions, we’re able to exceed client expectations.

[Point 2]: It’s a cliché but true: A champion team beats a team of champions. Now it’s no secret that many of the stars of our industry work for our competitors. But we smashed them this quarter. We may not have the industry show ponies. But we’ve got the champion team.

Example 1 (sport): Barbora Strycova and Lucie Safarova: who’s heard of them? But they took out Venus and Serena Williams at the Rio Olympics in the first round. Because they worked well together.

Example 2 (entertainment): I’m going to show my age now: Melanie Brown, Melanie Chisholm, Emma Bunton, Geri Halliwell, Victoria Adams. All solid, hard workers. Fairly talented in their own way. Put them together, though, and you had the Spice Girls. For those of you a bit younger than me, my kids tell me you could say the same thing about One Direction. Well that’s us. And, as our results show, we’re no one-hit wonders.

[Conclusion]: So when I look around the room, I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved. And it’s all because of our diversity, and our team work.

[Tied back to Attention-grabber]: When I first joined this company, I couldn’t wait to get out. But now I can’t think of working anywhere else. Why would I leave the A-Team? Thank you all and congratulations on your fantastic numbers. Enjoy the rest of your night.”


Now have a go yourself – you can use my scenario or one more likely to happen to you.

I hope these tips help when you are next hauled up to the mike without notice. Good luck! Let me know how you get on.

Related articles:

Principal sources:

Yale, R. (2014). The Impromptu Gauntlet: An Experimental Strategy for Developing Lasting Communication Skills. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 77(3), 281-296.

Billings, A.C. & Billings, A.C. (2000). Pedagogical and practical applications of coaching a limited preparation event. The Rostrum, 76(1), 31, 38, 67.

Turnipseed, I. (2005). Understanding Limited Preparation Events. National Forensic Journal, 23(1), 37-44.


Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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