Impromptu Speaking

Why impromptu speaking or speaking off the cuff? Well, have you ever had a job interview? Did you nail it? Do you gravitate towards people you all ready know, or do you enjoy meeting new people and finding out all about them? One last question, have you ever gone blank during a presentation? Ok, you get the general idea. But impromptu speaking skills come in handy even if you only need to introduce someone, introducing your song or proposing a toast.

One of my friends was telling us about his opinion on a political topic over a coffee. I was amazed how well he spoke and engaged us all. He directed his attention in turn, to all four of us. He was passionate about his topic and was keen to include each one of us. I then realised, it was actually a well-structured, mini speech delivered conversationally. Perfect! He had given us his opinion, explained it and supported it with examples and rounded it off with why he thinks that way. Yep, you got it, all the things most speech coaches recommend. That is, passion, eye contact, wanting to connect and with a structure that included an introduction, a body and a conclusion.

As an aside here is a link for Toastmasters on nailing the role of the Table Topics Master. The Table Topics Masters is the person who leads the impromptu speaking session in Toastmasters.

Impromptu speaking, speaking extemporaneously, or speaking off-the-cuff, is in many of ways a semi prepared speech. This is because you’re drawing on past experiences and stories you’ve probably already shared. The part that makes it impromptu is that it’s unrehearsed.

While you can’t rehearse to speak off-the-cuff, you can practice. I belong to a marvelous and one of the best international leadership and communication organisation called Toastmasters. At each club meeting we practice impromptu speaking. We get a question and we are asked to respond to it, speaking for 1-2 minutes. At Toastmasters it’s called “Table Topics”. Check out these question, free on line. You can also purchase the book on the right at Amazon for a mere $1.06 AUD. I recommend even dropping your finger blindly on any written material and thinking about the word you land on. Then all you have to do, is just start to speak on that topic or related topic. This will definitely improve your impromptu speaking skills. You can do the same thing while driving about, using any thing you see. A lot of gigs in Improv, they’re sometimes call Harolds, start with a word elicited from the audience and then they expand on that. Improv is also impromptu, however there are guidelines and methods they practice to help it flow and to promote creativity. Similarly, Toastmasters also use strategies to allow members to succeed with impromptu speaking. Below are a few of the guidelines that I think you’ll find useful that you can practice at home and on your friends and family. If they detect what you’re doing, it’s not conversational enough.



Method One

There are two points of view on how to start an impromptu response. One
is a bit like this story. My older brother had a point of view about shopping, especially Christmas shopping. His view was that you should buy the first thing that grabs your attention, for whatever reason. You could spend another hour just making sure that there’s nothing better, but more often than not, you come back to the first item that grabbed your attention. So, as they do in Improv, go with the first thing that comes to your mind, uncensored. The reasoning behind this is that your brain is much more creative than you give it credit for and you need to trust it.

Method Two

Now, the other story goes something like this. How often, after you’ve finished speaking off-the-cuff, do you think of all the other, better things you could have said, or the different angle you could have taken? When you’re an audience member, how often do you wish you got that question? Mind you, that could be because you’ve got more time and sometimes the best ideas pop up when you’re not under any pressure. That’s when brain is wide open to ideas.

The Compromise

The other thing is, that sometimes when
you go with the first thing that comes to
your mind, something that seemed like a good idea at the time, can come to a dead-end prematurely. Maybe the compromise is to not discard the first thing that comes into your mind and keep your options open. Give yourself some time to check out other possibilities. The old adage, “Act in haste, repent at leisure”, comes to mind. You’re probably getting my leanings by now.

Say Yes!

When it comes to starting an impromptu response, I’ll never forget a past Toastmaster’s member by the name of Richard Yep. His name is so appropriate because of his advice. And his advise was, instead of cringing with fear when you are asked to speak off-the-cuff, say, “YES!!!”, never mind what situation. And say it out loud, or in your mind, dent matter. The reasoning behind this is, when you say “YES!!!”, your mind opens up to hundreds of creative possibilities. On the other hand, cringing in fear shuts down all creativity. By the way, did you get the link between his surname and his message? If you are a toastmaster, remember you have the option to define the meaning of the words and questions. Oh! One last thing, I used to take the serious approach when answering impromptu questions, turning me into a university lecturer. Apologies to the good ones. However the humorous, lighter, eccentric approach gets their attention, connects and wins more converts.


The Rule of Three

There are many templates or methods that you can use in impromptu speaking. The idea is to give your response some structure. Most of them follow the magic “Rule of Three”. The three most common “Rule of Three” methods are, “Three Points”, “Past, Present, Future” and “For, Against, Opinion”. The benefit of having three clear points is because right there, you have your introduction, body and conclusion. You can also anchor each point, left, middle and right of the stage to move purposefully across the stage.

Three Points

For example, you’re given the question, “What did you like most about your childhood?” The three things that immediately came to my mind, is lack of responsibility, playtime and the serenity of camping with my parents in the dunes when I lived in Holland. Then I also remembered Saint Nicholas and all the community festivities we celebrated. So I’ll go with the lack of responsibility, play time and festivities. As I mentioned, those three points are both my introduction and conclusion. For example, “The three things I liked most about my childhood was the lack of responsibility…” All you need to do now is to take one point at a time and flesh out or expand on each of these three points and conclude as per the introduction.


Past, Present, Future

This time you are given the question, “What is your favourite age?” Your introduction could be that you need to consider three points, your childhood, you current age and your future age. With the first point you can tap into your childhood memories. Personal stories from you’re childhood are pure gold. Then move on to consider your current age and then imagine what it’s going be
like in the future. You can then conclude and wrap it all up by answering the question with your final choice and why.

For, Against, Opinion



Here you could be asked, “Compulsory voting. What is your opinion?” This one’s fairly obvious. You have a short debate with yourself before you decide and conclude.



The problem some respondents have, is fleshing out or expanding on their points. They move on and through each point too rapidly. They often run out of material and finish before the one-minute mark. There is a great improv exercise called, “Expand and Advance”. The way it works is that when one person is responding, a second person calls out “Expand” at the appropriate time; the person responding then has to expand on the last thing they said, until they hear the call “Advance”. The respondent then moves forward with their story or topic. It’s a great way to learn how to expand on different aspects of your response. With technique the problem becomes, not to go over time.


I have written a whole post on “The Power of Pace and Pause.” However, in the case of impromptu speaking, there are extra considerations. For example, if you’re asked a question at an interview, take your time. Make sure you understood the question. Make sure you’re answering the question asked. If needs be, ask them to repeat or clarify any part you did not understand fully. Pause before you answer the question; it lets them know you are giving their question due consideration.

In a situation where you are asked to fill in at the last moment, without warning, don’t panic. Take the stage, pause and take your time to collect yourself and concentrate on what you want to communicate. In any case it’s beneficial for the audience to be given time to take you in. Pausing certainly gets their attention.

At Toastmasters, we actually have impromptu speaking contests. In this situation, it’s good to realise that there are no rules that say that you have to start immediately. So I recommend that you take your time. As I said earlier, “Act in haste, repent at leisure.”

Speaking Skills
While the below points refer to impromptu speaking exercises and contests, they have relevance to everyday situations.

Of course it goes without saying that all the other speaking skills touched on in my various posts, applies. The main ones would have be:

The Fear of Public Speaking”, “Speak with Passion”, “Be You”.


The other ones are:
  • The most important thing you need wear when you get up on stage or are speaking publicly, is a smile. It helps both you and the listeners to enjoy themselves and have fun.
  • Step up confidently, tapping into all your past successes. It will relaxes you listeners, even if you’re faking it.
  • Most importantly, be in the moment, be there for your listeners and as Kim Chamberlain says, “STAY.” Stop Thinking About Yourself. It’s all about them.
  • Once you have started on your topic, stick to the topic.
  • Try not to squeeze in a fourth point. Paraphrasing Craig Valentine, “If you squeeze your information in. You’ll squeeze your audience out.” Besides, you need to believe in the magic, the magic of the “Rule of Three”. Less is more.
  • Don’t repeat what you have already said, unless it’s your foundational phrase if you thought of one.
  • Generally a pause may seem like a life time to you, however, done confidently, adds drama, attention and time for you to think. Otherwise known as, “Stalling for Time”. Try and maintain eye contact while you’re stalling.
  • Slow up. Believe it or not, people are actually interested in what you have to say and appreciate the time given to allow them to think about it.
  • Following on from the last point, when you ask a rhetorical question, PAUSE. It’s actually a form of rudeness to continue on, in the same way, as you were to ask a non-rhetorical question. Similarly pause when people are laughing.
  • Try to refer back to what you said at the start. It means you’ve come full circle and gives a sense of finality and completion.
  • Once you’re concluding, don’t try to slip in something you forgot or just thought of. It will seem exactly what it is, an after though, and it’s a disconnect.
  • When you have finished, stay. Stay to enjoy the applause. You owe it to your listeners and yourself.

Speak to connect, to make that difference.

Author: Henk van den Bergen

I have been speaking on Champagne for 20 years and decided to improve my speaking skills by joining Toastmasters International 13 year ago. I'm still a member today and I'm passionate about sharing what I’ve learned. I’m also proud to be the 1998 “Vin de Champagne Award” winner and being a three time Australian finalist in the International Speech contest.

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