Often we are asked to give an impromptu speech at a gathering. An impromptu speech is one that is given without any advanced preparation. Most people are so reticent about giving a speech, they would rather die than give one.

Picture a mother speaking to a small group of children, like a den mother with some Cub Scouts. Doing that does not create a problem for her because she is speaking to little children, 7 to 9 years old. She doesn't have any anxiety speaking to them, but she does have pangs of panic when speaking to adults. The reason that she doesn't have a problem with the little boys in blue is that they won't judge her because she is their leader, and they listen to what she has to say. Speaking to adults, on the other hand, is a different story. She views adults as really complex human beings. Speaking to them creates a multitude of anxiety problems — at least in her mind, like (1) she's afraid of making a mistake, (2) they will think that her message is irrelevant, or (3) they will look in askance at her.

Those are some of the things that the apprehensive speaker believes that her audience will be critical about. Actually, they will look at her with a tinge of admiration, because they themselves would be afraid to do it.

There are a variety of other times when it may be necessary for the impromptu speaker to give some input, like at a parent-teachers meeting that affects one's children. If the topic at one of these meetings is viewed as having a negative impact on that potential speaker's children, it will be in her best interest for her to speak up.

Other times, in other situations, someone may be asked to give an impromptu speech. They are given some notice that they must feverishly hurry to prepare. Many impromptu speeches occur when a group of people is gathering for a ceremony of one kind or another. For example, preceding dinner, a person who has known the celebrant, personally or professionally, might be asked to say a few words. It does not mean that one would actually speak a small amount of words, like the “celebrant was deserving,” and then sit down. There is much more to the speech than a few words. The figurative terms for “a few words” means a short speech, taking a minute or more. In the context of this small gathering, the speaker will have a limited time to prepare, like a few minutes. There will probably be other speakers, but the impromptu speaker does not know how much time is needed during the interim, which is necessary to prepare the speech.

How can the speaker prepare in such a short time? There are a few things one can do to avoid panic and embarrassment:

  • Grasp a pen and a piece of paper — a napkin or a scrap of paper will do.
  • Feel free to acknowledge that you are not prepared. The audience will then be focused on your message.
  • Write down some significant or interesting points about your message.
  • Attack your topic! Your goal is to deliver a one-sided conversation.
  • Begin with your introductory sentence, and work your way to your concluding statement. Between these, fill in as many points as you can.
  • As you deliver your speech, concentrate on the tone of your message. A friendly tone usually works the best. Feel free to pause. The pause will add emphasis to your next point.

If during your impromptu speech you hit a blank, pause. This will give you time to gather your thoughts. Don't try to remember the whole speech, just remember the points in their proper order.

If you have encountered many situations in which you could have responded, but were reluctant to do so, there is help in the community. There are two toastmasters groups within short distance of all of our local readers. Find a nearby group by referring to ToastmastersInternational.org. They will accept guests who might be interested in their impromptu speeches during their meeting. A local one is the Spartan Speakers ([407] 761-9106) at Cayuga Community College and the Verbal Spartans (315-685-3633) at Welch-Allyn. Anyone interested in seeing how these clubs practice impromptu speaking can contact them about one of their meetings as a guest. There is no requirement that guests need to join.

Learning how to speak off the cuff at group meetings is another way that you can watch your language.

Michael Ricci is a retired English teacher and the founder of the New York Spelling Bee. He welcomes any comments regarding any of his columns at mr.baseball714@yahoo.com.

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