Impromptu speaking skills are coveted by the masses, if not for any other reason than to have the ability to speak on virtually anything given only a short time to prepare. While this task seems fairly trivial, the implications of being able to do such a thing are huge. Becoming a great impromptu speaker gives you great confidence, foresight on handling speech messups, a solid handle on any type of Q&A your audience might throw your way, but most importantly, you will learn how to think on your feet.
So how does one become a great impromptu speaker? Practice. Boring and cliche, I know, but it’s true. No matter how much you think about thinking on your feet, you’ll only get better at it by doing it.
How do you practice? First, grab some impromptu topics by printing off a bunch of quotes from any of the various quotation websites. Don’t spend too much time dwelling on these and asking yourself if you could give a speech on it. That ruins the entire purpose. It would be ideal if you could get someone else to do this step for you. Then, cut the quotes up so that each quote is on its own slip of paper. Stick these quotes into an envelope and shuffle them around. Now you’re ready for the fun part. Draw three quotes and spend 15 seconds choosing the one you think you could give the best speech on. Place the leftover quotes back in the envelope. Now give yourself two minutes to prepare speaking for five minutes. If need be, you can use a notecard to jot your notes down on. (The less you depend on/use the notes method, the better you will become at thinking on your feet.) After your two minutes are up, no matter how ill you feel, give your speech and try to last for five minutes. You can do this in front of a mirror or any friends that are willing to listen. Rinse, repeat.
The more times you go through this “ritual,” the more comfortable you’ll become in front of any audience speaking on any topic, whether you’ve prepared the speech ahead of time or you’re dealing with Q&A at the end. Look for part 2 of this post to come soon with tips and tricks on using your two minutes of preparation time to form a great five minute speech. In the meantime, impromptu away!
Think you’re unprepared for a speech? Feeling queasy and shaky right before starting your talk? You probably think the best next step is to let your audience know that this may not be a good talk and that you’re unprepared, because we all like having realistic expectations right? WRONG.
Starting your speech with a disclaimer is probably the worst thing you can do. Your audience will immediately check out and at that point, you’ve lost them altogether… in the first 10 seconds! Yes, being completely prepared and confident before every speech is near impossible. Thus, the solution is not “just be more prepared” (although that would help) because inevitably you will always feel less confident and ready than you probably are. The solution: act confident no matter how confident you may actually be. No, this isn’t dishonesty, because the likelihood is that you’re being dishonest with yourself about how well your talk will go. You will naturally jump to conclusions that people will hate your content, think you’re stupid, and are probably going to laugh at the abomination of a speech you’re about to give; but don’t worry, everyone feels that way.
Not only is making disclaimers taboo, but apologizing is as well. Stutter on your second point? Forget a few lines of your speech? Don’t apologize, just move on. The more you consider apologizing and giving excuses, the more you’re thinking about how poorly your speech may be coming off to your audience. As soon as you let that thought process in, you’re on a sure path to destruction. No matter what goes wrong, just pick up the pieces and move on.
It’s simple. Act confident and you will become more confident with every speech.
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Dave Troy is an event organizer extraordinaire, having organized everything from TEDx conferences to Barcamps. He is most known for his work in organizing TEDxMidAtlantic and the recent TEDxOilSpill in New York City. I recently had the privilege of picking his brain about his organizing process and challenges. The following is a transcription of a paraphrased interview.
[Z] Hey Dave, thanks for taking some time to fill us in on your organizing processes. Do you mind starting off by explaining the process of how you find speakers for your conferences?
[D] Sure. TEDx is more of a brainstorming process: identify who would be good choices, reach out to 3 or 4 times more people than we expect to actually show up as speakers and then treat it as a sales funnel. We don’t necessarily give it too much thought. After maybe halfway through wrapping up the slots we reevaluate how to move ahead with what kind of topics, etc. It’s process driven.
[D] It feels like a numbers game. That’s because with TEDx you have a larger source pool. With more industry specific conferences, the source pool is smaller.
[Z] How do you get feedback on the events you organize?
[D] We get informal feedback through emails from attendees. We haven’t had time to think of a meaningful process. The experience is different for TEDx because one person can see the whole conference. With larger conferences, everyone is everywhere so it’s more difficult to get consistent feedback.
[Z] What’s your biggest hurdle as an event organizer?
[D] In general it involves getting people to register and commit. People are making fewer plans in advance. It’s hard to get people to register a couple days before. As you’re coming up on an event, you don’t know if you’re going to sell it out or not so you don’t know how much budget to commit to the event. At TEDxOilSpill we didn’t get a real amount of registrations until 9 days before the event and it sold out in the next 7 days.
[D] Having mechanisms to manage registration expectations would be very helpful. People have busy schedules. On any given day, people have 3 or 4 things they could choose to do. Events are easier than ever to organize which means there are so many of them to choose from. Registration then becomes an option on attending. Then you’re dealing with an overbooking scenario.
[Z] What’s the main functionality that would boost your overall event experience?
[D] TED conferences or Barcamps tend to produce this very active engaged community while they’re at the event, then they generally leave feeling energized but with no way to continue the conversation or to reconnect with the speakers or attendees. We’re trying to address this concern.
[D] Hands down the thing that TEDx could use is a way to keep the attendee community connected to one another. If every talk had a discussion board, the ability to have videos integrated, but noting feedback from live attendees vs. video viewers. This could create a pretty 3-dimensional picture of how the talks went off.
[D] With bigger industry specific conferences, there’s a lot more room for variation and quality of speakers. They have promotion of the unknown element. You never really know if the speakers are going to be good communicators.
[Z] Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions Dave. You’ve been very helpful. Good luck on future endeavors with TEDx conferences and Barcamps!
The first 30 seconds of your talk can make or break you. This part of your talk can be referred to as your “hook.” Looking at it as an analogy, all of your audience members are fish (we’ll say bass, maybe a few catfish) swimming aimlessly in the sea. Your objective is to attract them all to the same point and reel them in. With some attractive bait and a well positioned hook, it’s possible to do just that.
No this doesn’t mean start by calling your attendees a bunch of fish and getting a move on with your talk, it means starting with an interesting and compelling introduction that will grab your audience. What does that look like? Well there isn’t one simple formula for creating a great intro, but there are some criteria to go by:
Out of the ordinary - If you start with something everyone has heard before, they’ll probably tune out immediately and jump to believe that the rest of your talk has nothing new to offer.
Relevant - Regardless of how much you want your audience’s attention, no intro is worth having if it doesn’t connect to your topic in some way.
Easy to follow - A complicated math problem is probably not the best way to get your attendees to follow you. You want the beginning of your talk to be the easiest place for everyone to jump on board.
Tone setting - If you’re giving some dramatic talk about starving children, you probably don’t want to start with a joke. Match the tone of your intro to your topic and save your audience the emotional roller coaster.
Short - No one likes an intro that drags on and on. Keep it short and to the point.
There are several ways to create intros that match the above criteria. Here’s a few options to draw from for an audience tailored intro:
Story - Everyone loves a great story, especially when it comes at the beginning of a talk. There are several different types of stories to choose from, each with different benefits depending on your topic.
True personal story - This will help to establish credibility not only on your topic, but as a speaker. It introduces your personality through an example that relates to your topic, and should hopefully be interesting to follow.
Fictional personal story - Putting yourself in a hypothetical environment or story that didn’t actually happen (make sure you’re honest and let your audience know) can make for awesome fun and might be easier to tailor specifically to your topic.
Non-personal story - This could be fictional or nonfictional, serious or light-hearted. Whether you know the story from someone you know or researched it, there are too many interesting non-personal stories to count.
Analogy - Analogies can be a great way to introduce principles or compare to a real life person or object. The beauty in analogies is that they have the ability to boil complex ideas or topics into the simplest elements in a fun way. You can make analogies up or draw from a large pool already available (ant and grasshopper, frog and pot of boiling water, etc.).
Quote - Quotes can be funny, serious, to the point, quirky, and challenging. The challenge with quotes is that they can be cliche or boring. But if you make sure the quote lines up with criteria #1 above, it can be a golden opener.
These are just a few ways to crack into the attention of your audience. Get creative and have fun with your first 30 seconds. Hook, line, and sinker!
Testimonials are a great way to recommend a speaker to the speaking community. Speakers with testimonials on their profile will be more likely to land speaking gigs. This video shows you how quick and easy it is.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Mark Mzyk, organizer of a TEDx conference in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina earlier this year, about all things event related. TEDx conferences are offshoots of the well-known TED conferences. The following transcription is a paraphrased interview.
[Z] How did you arrange speakers for your conference?
[M] We had a committee of people to brainstorm names of speakers and other people in the industry that might be helpful in finding speakers. This might not scale well. Having another way to find speakers would be great.
[Z] How did you look to get feedback about the event?
[M] We didn’t use any formal method for obtaining feedback. We had an after party where we talked to people and got some more informal feedback.
[Z] If you were able to use a formal system of getting feedback, what elements would be useful to get feedback on?
[M] What people thought of the overall event and what their takeaway was. Did they gain insights? Did they feel that they had easy access to the speakers? (Attendee access to speakers is a big part of TEDx.) Feedback on venue, food, pacing, and thematic grouping. I would lean towards having a customizable form with targeted questions and open-ended answers.
[Z] What kind of relationship do TEDx conferences have with the TED organization?
[M] TED and TEDx have a pretty loose relationship. TEDx organizers have to get permission from TED to put on the event and then they have a set of guidelines to follow. Other than that, there’s not a very strong relationship.
[Z] What was the biggest hurdle in preparing for and managing the conference?
[M] Our biggest hurdle was managing the lineup of speakers and getting responses from them. It was especially difficult when speakers dropped out at the last minute and we had to fill their positions.
[Z] Did you consider taking call for proposals (CFPs) to engage speakers?
[M] That’s something we considered but didn’t have the time for since we were starting our search later in the game. If we were to take CFPs in the future, our concern would be managing being swamped with them and determining which speakers are serious.
[Z] Thanks so much for your time Mark, your answers have been very helpful. Good luck on any future endeavors with TEDx conferences!
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“Um, well, ya know, like, consequently, so, uh, know what I mean?” Does this sound familiar? It’s called using “filler” words or saying everything without really saying anything. It is the weakness of many brilliant people when it comes to giving presentations.
So what’s the problem with filler words? Don’t they make pauses less awkward? The answer is no, they actually make pauses more awkward. I once counted someone saying the word “um” 215 times during a 20 minute presentation. Was I paying attention to the content of the presentation? No. I was so distracted with the verbal pauses that I couldn’t focus on what he was really trying to say. You don’t want your hard work to go to waste and fall on deaf ears. Filler words are distracting, interrupt the pace of the speech, and demonstrate poor preparation. Thus, filler words should be nowhere in a good speaker’s vocabulary.
Obviously this is easier said than done. So what’re some ways to kick the habit of lining your presentations with filler profanity? There are numerous methods that work for different people. The one that worked for me is pretty simple:
Invite some of your friends to watch you practice your presentation.
Instruct them all to clap every time you use a filler word.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
It almost seems too simple. But believe it or not, the annoyance and break in rhythm is enough to “scare” you out of using your go-to fillers.
“To be effective at stopping the habit you have to focus on something else – something positive that you can do, as an alternative to um’ing. That alternative is chunking. Chunking is talking in short chunks of words with breaks in between the chunks. When you chunk you get into a rhythm: burst of words/break/burst of words/break….Focus on that rhythm and your um’s will go.”
Whatever your method, you’ve got to, um, get rid of, like, all of your fillers… ya know?