Article Written by: Judith Humphrey, Great Leadership
In my career as a corporate “ghost writer,” I produced a ton of speeches and PowerPoint presentations for senior executives. The top spokespersons loved those “ready to go” talks which they delivered from behind the podium – often to large groups.
All that has changed. Leaders today give fewer formal speeches. Instead, they are expected to be spontaneous and authentic, and share in one-on-one or small group situations just what they believe. This new approach to communicating requires a new set of carefully honed skills.
Why the Need for Impromptu Skills?
Impromptu speaking has become the communication skill most in demand for leaders. And that world of leadership now includes far more than the top executives. Today, leadership is not determined by title or rank. It comes from your ability to motivate others. If you can inspire your team or persuade a customer to do business with you, you have led, and earned, the title of leader.
Leadership has become an everyday responsibility. It’s important to inspire others in meetings, corridor conversations, and even in the cafeteria – indeed, in every situation where you find yourself with colleagues and clients.
Impromptu speaking is the new normal. Those who continue to rely on scripted texts will disappoint their audiences. But to succeed in impromptu speaking, as with formal speaking, requires discipline. Below are guidelines that will help you deliver inspiring impromptu remarks.
#1 Read your Audience
Speaking impromptu requires that you closely read your audience – and respond to the signals they give you. Study your listeners before you speak. This means when you’re in a meeting, listen to what others are saying before you start so you can build on their ideas. Next, read your audience as you’re speaking. Size up the people around you. If they show closed body language (arms folded, facial frowns) or seem indifferent with blank expressions on their faces, change gears. Ask a question or simplify your argument. Finally, after you speak, read your audience and see whether you reached them and if not, try to figure out why.
#2 Organize Your Thoughts
If you want to inspire others with your impromptu remarks, organize your thoughts before you speak. Some individuals try to collect their ideas as they speak with no clear method of doing so. This leads to “um-ing” and “aw-ing,” as well as phrases like “what I’m trying to say is.” Without a clear structure, impromptu remarks become a content dump.
The secret to organizing your thinking is to use a mental template that allows you to build your structure every time you speak. Here are the components of the template I’ve developed. It’s called The Leader’s Script®:
Begin with a “grabber” that reaches out to your audience
State your message (one idea in a single sentence)
Build a case for your message (2-4 proof points)
Close with a call to action (steps you are recommending)
Why does this template allow you to speak with leadership? You are drawing your audience in (grabber), sharing your idea (your message), convincing them of that idea (through proof points), and asking them to act on that message (call to action). If they act, you will have led. This is a powerful strategy for any impromptu leader, and examples of how to use this template are found in my book, Impromptu: Leading in the Moment.
#3 Speak with Presence
Getting others to follow you also demands that you speak with presence. Here are points to keep in mind so the way you speak reinforces what you say.
Choose the Right Time and Place.
Having presence literally means being present. So make sure that when you broach a discussion with a colleague or employee, you both can concentrate on that topic. If you’re in the hall and you see a colleague rushing to a meeting, it’s not a good time to raise anything. Similarly, if you have an important discussion with an employee about work performance, set up an appointment. Don’t give a hurried review in the corridor.
Use Your Eyes.
Eye contact is critical in impromptu exchanges. By observing the people you’re talking to, you can judge how well you are getting through to them. You can then calibrate what you’re saying. Eye contact also shows the other person that you care about what they are saying and are giving them the full attention they deserve.
In impromptu conversations, the pace of your words is extremely important because it determines how well you control your thinking and how well your audience receives it. If you speak too fast—which is often the tendency when we are talking “on the fly”—you’ll lose your audience. You’re also making it hard to structure your thoughts. So be sure to speak slowly by (1) using a slower rate of word delivery than you normally do and (2) pausing after each thought so the other person can absorb it.
Watch Your Body Language.
Finally, make sure that you know what messages your body is sending even in the most informal impromptu exchanges. Our tendency in impromptu speaking is to be more relaxed, and when we relax, we may slouch, fold our arms, or use distracting gestures. Instead, realize that your body needs to be open to the conversation, so keep your posture straight, your arms open, and your gestures moving in the direction of your audience.
In short, impromptu leadership is more important than ever before. Follow these guidelines and you’ll succeed in this vital approach to communicating.