Impromptu Speaking


This was an educational talk at delivered at Northampton Speakers to help make up a shortfall of speeches. It forms part of the requirements of the Advanced Communicator Silver (ACS) Award. It is project 4 from the Better Speakers Series and I chose it because Table Topics form part of the Contest coming up on the 21st of September.

Rather than script this talk I choose to develop it around bullet points and audience engagement.

The first question was why? Why bother to learn about Impromptu Speaking? There are many moments that you can be thrown on the spot:

  • in an interview,
  • in a phone conversation,
  • a conversation with a colleague,
  • a conversation with a stranger, or
  • if the media call and want someone to talk about a topical issue.

Impromptu speaking is a mental skill and like all skills needs developing and working out. In all the above situations most people brain freezes up until shortly after when it roars back to life and you regret what you didn’t say.

When thrown on the spot it pays to remember a ‘green cross code’ approach to navigating the chasm:

  • LISTEN and don’t interject as this shows that you respect what is being said and you are taking it and thinking about it. They will be more likely to listen to you in return,
  • PAUSE dramatically like a conductor tapping the lectern and freezing until to he has undivided attention and it buys thinking time,
  • CONFIRM and paraphrase back what you have heard as this builds further trust and again helps the though processes,
  • TELL you response (more on that in a moment), and
  • END decisively by summarising your main point, avoid belabouring your arguments ’round the houses’ in search of something new, and graciously hand the initiative back thanking them for their question.

Go with the first idea that comes into your head and avoid parking it up hoping for a better one as the first idea just clutters up your thinking and the chance that the next idea will emerge. If you have a brain freezes midway then PAUSE dramatically on the point you just made, re CONFIRM the question and if that doesn’t restart what you want to TELL about the subject then END.

To TELL well you need structure. A table-topic is still a fully formed speech with beginning, middle and end. It also need a main point and then 2 or three supporting arguments. These are a few of the more effective structures:

  • Argue eg. I (dis)agree with the questions because, because, and because,
    • Argue in circles eg. I think I agree because, but I can see the other argument, but overall I (dis) agree because,
  • Geographical eg. the restaurant in Northampton are X in the north, Y in the west, and Z in the south
  • Chronological eg. If I could travel back in time I would visit the dawn of agriculture, the birth of Christianity and ride on the first steam train
  • Decomposition eg. my favourite holiday location is Denia (Spain) because the beaches are fantastic, the English expatriate community have brilliant cocktail parties, and there are loads of tucked away villages, walks and restaurants to explore in the nearby mountain valleys, and
  • Layered eg. Climate change is bad news globally for low lying coastal communities, regionally for desertification wild flower loses in southern Europe, and closer to home it is not clear that my uncle can adapt himself, his farm and the dairy herd he has spent half a lifetime breeding to new conditions and he may have to quit.

To get better at Impromptu Speaking it is important to:

  • Keep Calm and do table topics and do table topics and do table topics…
  • Briefly (don’t waffle or belabour your points), and
  • Sincerely (say what you believe, or totally make it all up, but don;t pretend to know if you don’t (as it alienates you))

Bonus tips I didn’t mention:

  • you can anticipate probable questions and probable structures you would use especially if you know the theme,
  • stay up to-date with world affairs as that can make you sound really relevant, and
  • read short stories in, say, the Readers Digest,  and when preparing speeches story-fy a few of your anecdotes.

I know it works to be for-armed because this year in one week I managed a good response involving VanGogh and Absinthe at Northampton Speakers. Two days later I had the ideal table topic question to do it again. I won ribbons twice.

Reflections and Feedback

Over all I enjoyed this and received great feed back. I built on an approach to educational table topics that I picked up in Bilbao last year. I am glad to have made in roads into the ACS


  • great speech value,
  • great structure,
  • great delivery with the odd bellow of the keyword LISTEN,
  • avoided turning back on the audience whilst changing flip chart, and
  • flip chart visual-aids short and to the point.


  • much clearer Flip-chart pen and writing needed,
  • much more strategic use of the stage area, flip-chart and my position so as not to obstruct those sitting in the wings,
  • challenge myself with a different style to informative speeches next, and
  • Jo never shares the stage even to preposition yourself.
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