Last email, we looked at practicing to become amazing. Again looking at baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.,who went on a run of 2632 consecutive games. We also looked at moving from sprint races of 200 m to running a marathon (no, I still haven’t been able to run one, so deleted it from my new year resolutions). To make practicing work, you need to start small, maintain your focus and gradually increase the tempo or strain on you. By doing this, you build up the capacity to become amazing and consistent.
I won’t forget two different opportunities I had to speak which ended very poorly. The first one was my introduction as a manager and the second one was when I left ‘my’ team.
Let’s start from my first unsuccessful attempt at impromptu speaking. It was 2014, and I had just been promoted to manage a production plant, which had always been my dream. However, I didn’t know that with my introduction to the team, it was expected of me to say a few words (in Dutch, by the way as if to make matters more difficult). With the entire team looking at me, surprise written over all their faces, I stood up and declared – “We are going to become the best plant within the company. Our goal is to win and win we shall do” in summary.
Depending on the country and culture, such a speech may motivate people, but yet is not the optimal way to start off your introduction to a production department. To crown it all, in the Netherlands (generally speaking), where the culture can be less competitive, it was totally not done. I failed to connect with my audience, didn’t tailor my message to fit them and spoke to them from within my drives without considering theirs.
Eventually, when it was time for me to leave this team for pastures anew, I had another impromptu opportunity to tell people how much I had enjoyed working with them and say a proper goodbye. Here again, I choked and couldn’t dig out the right words with which to share my emotions but also to leave a memory with my soon to be former team.
Before going into my lessons and how I could have done this better, let me share one of my first successes in impromptu speaking. This was the first time I was asked to speak at a Toastmasters evening. Normally as a visitor, I am not obliged to accept this invitation to speak but something pushed me to get up. I still remember the topic – was handed an old toothbrush that was picked up from garbage with the question to describe the story of this brush. For me, I call it a moderate success because standing there, I was able to visualize a story about a little girl who lost her toothbrush.
What could help you speak on cue as if you’ve spent days preparing for this speech.
We already talked about spending time in practicing to become consistent (feel free to revisit the topic HERE). The question then is how do I practice for a topic which I don’t know yet? It is one thing preparing for something you know but I have no clue what someone could ask me to speak on.
I like watching football, though I was never much of a player (but I am one of the best football armchair coaches in the world). I am talking about football because they also spend time practicing, honing their skills but you can never predict what would happen on the actual pitch. The most predictable part of football is probably penalty shots – because you know where the ball will be 100% of the time. Yet, you have no clue what the goalkeeper will do, you don’t take into consideration the crowd effect on match day nor can you reproduce your emotions standing there facing off to this giant of a man. So why do footballers practice?
In much the same way, we don’t know the topic nor do we know the audience. But just like the footballer practices his/her technique to hitting the ball, you practice your techniques for coming up with a story and delivering it. I was once taught to collect and record my stories – in much the same way we collect data, write down the stories in your life. This could be of what happened when you went to visit with a friend and the car broke down – you never know when this will come in handy.
The goal of practicing here, is learning how to fit stories into different topics and also how to complete the circle, by finalizing your speech and showing the reason for this story. One way to practice these things is look for one liners and transform this into your topic. How would you speak on that?
Let’s take an example and see how this works – scenario is that you’re invited during a company event to say a few words about how you’ve coped with COVID-19. I will use this example to describe preparing for the impromptu speech.
First part is do I have a story on COVID-19 and me? I remember entering the shop when the entire ‘physical distancing’ was starting up (one of those trying to stock up the whole house). Walking down one of the aisles, I came to a crossing between aisles and we had three people coming from different directions. We all stopped, looking at each other who will go first. (Simple story, relatable to people – I can practice on where to apply this).
When I first had the opportunity to teach (this was several years back in my local church), I remember trying to fit into my pre-conceived idea of how someone should teach. In a similar way, when I joined the toastmasters, I remember trying to fit my way of speaking into the then world champion of public speaking Dananjaya Hettiarachchi. But I quickly learnt that I can’t be these people I idolize. I can learn from them, apply some of the skills I see them using but ultimately, it only works when I am the authentic me.
This is most noticeable with an impromptu speech. When you are called upon to speak or you’re at an interview (also by the press), the real you wants to come out and if you try to ‘perform’, this can backfire seeing you fall into the use of filler words as you struggle to cope.
This is where your authentic true to yourself story comes in. Taking our example above – while many others may have experienced this running into other people at the supermarket, your story is unique to you. My response when these other people stood there couldn’t have happened to anyone else in exactly the same way. Also, I can talk about it since I was there when it happened.
Even when I make up stories, there is a common thread within my stories and that is mainly about GROWTH. This is a value which comes from within me and always finds expression in any story I tell. This keeps even my impromptu speeches authentic – I will always be true to my values and belief system. For you that means knowing what values you hold close. One way to find out is during your practice phase, what do your audience keep hearing?
Going back to our example – when we met at that junction in the supermarket, I asked myself is this going to be the new society. On the positive side, people are so polite that nobody was trying to push their way through but on the other hand, there is a true lack of contact with people. For me, it says we need to look for other ways to still reach out to one another and remain relatable.
Keep the Structure
In much the same way that every story has a structure, you must retain this if you want your unplanned speech to be a success (the Bang, Twist and Flourish). For the impromptu speech, you still follow a similar structure, with one small twist – call it the C.A.R. method – Connect, Anecdote, Relate.
The first thing which you need to do in speaking is to Connect with your audience. That part will never change, so in the case of you being called up during a company event to speak, an option could be to let them know that this was an unexpected (this is not apologizing or giving excuses) surprise. Or just “Did you ever imagine that something would make our entire company work from home? Even when we had the fire incident some years back, the next day we all found a way to restart.”
Share your story or to make my acronym work your Anecdote. Once you’ve gotten people’s attention and they’re now waiting to hear from you – this is the time to really give the gist of your speech. I have called it anecdote, because this could also be something you read/heard which you want to use in this context. It is of course essential that this anecdote is fitting within the confines of your audience – some of my stories are inappropriate for work environment (wink wink). Here I would then share my shopping story.
It is nice to share a great anecdote, but if you don’t relate it to your topic – that becomes a waste. All you need to do now is bring the story back to the core of what you wanted to talk about. In the case of how I have been coping with COVID-19, it has taught me to think about other ways to connect with people. I have also learnt to walk faster when I’m in the shops (maybe just to make sure my wife isn’t trying to buy something I think we don’t need). Here you leave your audience with the teaching or shareable aspect of your story.
This has turned out much longer than I expected – note to self, learn how to reduce the length of your mails before people start complaining.
One last thing – don’t beat yourself up if you think the speech wasn’t that good. Remain your best critic and use that to improve.