How To Speak When You’re Put On The Spot

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Business women speaking into megaphone

We’ve discussed the necessity to practice to be a better communicator, but many of you have told me that you love speaking extemporaneously; to your mind that means you would be better off not practicing. Practicing may take the joy out of something that you really like to do, to shape ideas as they come to you, to put new ideas together and form them on the fly. In fact, that is a great skill.  However, a skill is usually developed with some guidelines.  This is where improvisational comedy, or “improv” comes in. People who are good at it have learned through a lot of practice to adhere to some rules even though they are still speaking extemporaneously.  Although there are many variations of these rules, (after all, this IS improv!) here are some from the Improv queen, Tina Fey:

Businessman with a hesitant face about speaking
  • Say “Yes.” As a speaker, this means to respect what others have said and to start your talk or conversation with an open mind.
  • Yes isn’t enough. Say “Yes, and…” This can apply to presenters and public speakers as the responsibility to add to what others have said rather than start with remarks on a completely new topic or ones that don’t reflect what has gone on in the room before you spoke up.
  • Make statements. Be committed to your ideas. Have a point of view. Speak clearly and with confidence.
  • There are no mistakes. Be open to opportunities that present themselves. If something appears to go wrong, what can you do with that to make lemonade?  When the power went out at a Chris Botti concert I attended, he seized the moment to walk into the audience and give an “unplugged” concert that had the audience transfixed and gave the artists a standing ovation.
Red yes button

The skill of improv is a great tool for leaders who have to think on their feet all day. It can help you be more aware as well as more innovative. It can help you be better at extemporaneous speaking. Think about it. How would the conversation change or what would happen if you just say “yes?”

Another rule of improv that some use is “don’t practice.” At first glance this may seem to reinforce that you will improvise best when you don’t prepare, but, in fact, improvisers do exercises around all of these rules and practice over and over to be able to be clear and think on their feet so that they can do their work well.  They do exercises to be aware of what they are and are not doing. Practicing makes them stronger and more able to think quickly on their feet.

Here’s how practicing can create more skills for extemporaneous speaking

  • By practicing to eliminate filler words from your talk, you have to pay more attention to how you say what you say.  Doing that makes you more aware in general.
  • By practicing to eliminate indirect language you have to pay closer attention to whether or not what you are saying is accurate and whether or not you are committed to your own ideas.  Eventually, your use of language improves in its meaning and you are much more able to express yourself clearly.
  • By practicing to bring in elements that engage others, you have to pay more attention to human connection and what makes others tick.  You have to listen more because you now require that you connect rather than be detached.
  • And by practicing aloud what you are going to say in a presentation or conversation, you allow your brain to use the ear/brain feedback loop and do its job of helping you to build more logic or more persuasion or more motivation…whatever you set as your intention.

Thus, the bottom line here is that in order to be at your best when you are asked to speak without much time to prepare, you have to prepare to speak. In an article on, Andy Boynton, Dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, says that improv can teach us “how to perform better, how to collaborate, how to build ideas,” all of which are essential skills for being a speaker who can speak well when put on the spot.

A book on improv that you may find interesting

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