Make Your Next Impromptu Speech Great

Here is the scenario: You’re at the meeting of a local business organization, where you are well known. Forty-five minutes into the meeting, the organization Vice President sidles up to you and asks if you’d be willing to speak on a certain topic for 5 – 10 minutes, before the President delivers the closing remarks and adjourns.

You have just 30 minutes to prepare. How can you quickly organize your thoughts and create a concise and compelling speech that your audience will appreciate and that you’ll deliver like a pro? Here’s how you do it.


Every speaker must quickly capture audience attention. Open your speech with an attention-grabbing statement that expresses a point of view that you know most in the audience share.  Alternatively, you can surprise or even shock the audience with an unexpected fact or a provocative question.  When you open your talk, the goal is to draw  audience members in and persuade them to sit up and listen.


Once you have their attention, you next show your audience that you deserve it. Earn their trust and respect when you reveal qualifications and experience that define you as an expert, or a person with special insights, who has timely and relevant information to share.

As a member of the host group you will automatically be given a measure of credibility, but you may have other qualifications that enhance your authority. The person who introduces you may share all, or part, of that background information. Stopping short of boasting, make known your claim to expertise.

Acknowledge success/ Identify problem

The organization leader who asked you to address the group will tell you what s/he would like you to achieve in your speech and if s/he neglects to do that, it is incumbent upon you to confirm the purpose of your talk.  Whether there is a recent victory to celebrate or a looming challenge to overcome, call it out and rally the support of audience members. Enthusiasm and passion, expressed in a way that your audience will expect and accept, is injected here.  Inspire unity for the cause.


Organization leaders may be planning to roll out an initiative and you may have been asked to speak to build member approval and solidarity around that solution. If there are good times ahead, the solution may be for members to continue their enthusiastic support of the organization and the cause. If turbulent times seem inevitable, the solution is the same. The purpose of your speech is to inspire loyalty to the organization and the cause.

Call to action

As your speech concludes you must give audience members an outlet and direction for their enthusiasm and commitment to the organization.  Should they sign up for a special committee that will implement the solution, be it celebration or problem? Or is this a fundraising initiative and you’d like to inspire commitment for contributions?  Give a deadline and urge immediate action.


End with a concise outline of the major points you made in the speech. Re-state the call to action and the deadline. Thank your audience.

Regarding general recommendations for public speaking, thank the person who introduced you when you take the podium. Keep your talking points simple and easy for the audience to remember. If you can weave into your speech a story that illustrates or summarizes an important point, so much the better.  As Travis Bernard, content marketing guru at TechCrunch, the thought-leader technology industry blog based in San Francisco, CA says, “What would be useful for my audience to learn and how can I package this lesson or bit of information in a compelling story format?”

Thanks for reading,


Image: Edgar Bundy (1862 – 1922, British) The Coffee House Orator, 1880.  Courtesy of Touchstones Rochdale Arts and Heritage Centre Museum, Greater Manchester, England

The Post-Speech Q & A

Everything has gone swimmingly with your presentation. The room is full, you held the attention of audience members and your timing was spot on. There are 10 minutes left for the question and answer session. You think you’ve won, but you have no idea how vulnerable you are.

Speakers often don’t realize it, but those brief minutes in the post-speech Q & A session have the potential to become your Achilles’ heel. The post-speech Q & A is un-mapped territory. You don’t know what’ll be thrown at you. The Q & A is a variable that few speakers prepare for, because they assume they can’t prepare for it and so they wing it and figure they’ll muddle through. Not!

As Tesla CEO Elon Musk now knows, winging the Q & A can be a grave mistake. At the conclusion of a May 2018 investor’s meeting speech, Musk had a heated exchange with a financial analyst who asked a couple of apparently incisive questions. Musk didn’t come out of it looking good. You may have heard that Musk has recently said “lack of sleep” and “stress” have been wearing him down. Sorry, it’s a weak excuse.

Executive Coach and speaker John Millen points out that when speakers mishandle post-speech or other questions, they can appear uninformed, hostile, or even dishonest. “How leaders answer questions is enormously important in building trust. If you come into a high-stakes situation talking to investors, employees, regulators (or a potential client) and you don’t communicate properly, there can be huge problems.” So let’s consider tactics that can bring you through your next post-speech Q & A with flying colors.


Take all precautions to avoid being perceived as clueless, shady, or defensive. If a question is posed for which you don’t have an answer, say “That issue is under review and I don’t yet have enough information to answer.” You can also turn it around and ask the questioner “Why is that important to you?” The answer may open your eyes to aspects of the subject that you had not previously considered and can be a teachable moment for you.

Start the process by thinking your subject through so that you can anticipate questions that could be asked. Next, do some audience research and ask the program organizer if there might be audience members who could oppose your goals or point of view, so you can rehearse answers designed to neutralize a campaign to undermine you.


Be mindful of aspects of your speech that could potentially seem controversial to certain audience members. A good defensive tactic is to proactively address a possibly sensitive matter in your speech, preferably toward the end or in your concluding remarks. Acknowledge the elephant in the room.

“That way, when it comes up again from the audience you could say ‘Right. As I said earlier…,’ Millen advises. “Then you are reinforcing your answer and it feels more truthful and honest.” Also, you’ll avoid allowing an angry questioner to set the tone. “You can get it out there on your own terms,” Millen notes.


Sometimes a speaker is hit with a multi-part question and when that happens, the recommendation is to answer that part of the question you can answer most adroitly, the part that reinforces your viewpoint or supports your goal. Speakers can usually get away with this tactic because audience members may not remember the entire question and in fact, they may have little patience with a complicated question. So cherry pick those parts that you want to answer and slide away from what you are unable or unwilling to answer.


Unfortunately, there could be an audience member who doesn’t so much have a question, but an axe to grind or s/he is in search of attention. Jo Miller, founder and CEO of Be Leaderly, a professional development training consultancy based in Cedar Rapids, IA, cautions speakers against getting defensive when encountering such a questioner. “The best way to deal with those questions is to maintain a confident and unapologetic posture,” she says. Miller suggests that adopting a tone of amusement can help get the audience on your side. She adds “Respond as if you are enjoying a game of intellectual ping-pong.”


If you are a company leader who will speak to employees, investors, an important client, or others with whom you must build trust and meet or exceed expectations, bring along two or three ranking team members and have them ready to step in and answer questions aligned with their areas of expertise. In other words, defer to the experts, share the spotlight and promote leadership skills development as you do.

End the Q & A on an upbeat, positive note and if possible, after you’ve given a well-received response to a question. If you are asked two or more challenging questions, Millen recommends that you
“Tell them they’re asking the right questions, then bring it back to your overall message. They (the audience) shouldn’t leave with a bad taste in their mouths.”

Thanks for reading,

Image: Cesare Maccari 19th century fresco depicts statesman, lawyer and orator Cicero (January 3, 106 BC – December 7, 43 BC) as he excoriates Senator Lucius Sergius Catilina (108BC – 62 BC) in the Roman Senate for Catilina’s role in the conspiracy to overthrow the Republic and, in particular, the aristocratic Senate. Courtesy of the Palazzo Madama (Rome).

Presentations: Impromptu and Prepared

In June of this year,   I became president of a local membership organization that is primarily social.  I’ve been a member for 12 years and a board member for 8 or 9 years.  I find the experience to be very gratifying.  I’ve made friends.  I’ve continued to develop and refine leadership skills.  I am fortunate to preside over a board that is comprised of top drawer members who are committed to the organization and who work diligently to develop strategies and plans that will sustain the organization over the short- and long-term.  I do whatever I can to create conditions that enable board and committee members to do their best work and then get out of the way and let them do it.

To become an organization leader is to become its public face and unifying symbol to its members.  Public speaking is part of the job.  It is often necessary to offer words of inspiration and encouragement and verbally demonstrate that you embody the vision,  mission and values of the organization.  There are impromptu speaking  “opportunities”  that arise when you are half way through a second glass of wine and surprise! someone asks you to say a few words.  How do you successfully make an unrehearsed speech and manage to sound reasonably eloquent (and sober)?

There are also impromptu speaking opportunities that are professional in nature,  where one must speak ex tempore about business.  These speaking obligations are unscheduled but they are not completely unexpected,  since one attends certain events with the desire to meet and greet peers and prospects and talk business.  Finally,  there are scheduled speaking opportunities,  when one presents information to prospective clients.  Three types of speaking opportunities:  how can you stand and successfully deliver?

I.  Let’s start with the easiest,  the business meet and greet.  This is where your elevator speech is delivered.   You must decide which version you will roll out.   Are you being introduced to someone and asked what you do?  Keep your elevator speech conversational and limited to what the business provides,  your role or title and the name of the organization.  If someone asks what you do while in conversation,  give a vague but accurate description of the outcomes or benefits of the service you provide or products you sell.  Formulate a sentence that describes the business function and your role,  with a focus on benefits and outcomes.  In either scenario,  provide more information only if the person seeks more information.  Make the encounter a dialogue by asking questions of your own,  to establish whether this individual has a need for your products and services,  or is just making conversation.

2.  Twice,  I have been unexpectedly asked to address members of the organization for which I serve as president and twice I did a good job.  How did I do it?  Primarily,  I was fortunate to have a very good set-up introduction and I was smart enough to listen and pick out a phrase on which I could launch a quick little speech.  In the first,  I found a good tag line that I still occasionally use.  In the second,  I was able to find a theme and spin it into a good three-minute talk.  The moral of the story is,  a leader must anticipate public speaking obligations.  Keep your antennae tuned for anecdotes or observations made by organization members or others that can be used to develop an inspirational mini-speech.

3.  I pass along to you my interpretation of a Power Point presentation template developed by Bahar Martonosi of Princeton University.  You may find this template useful when auditioning for a prospective client or delivering a report of findings during a consulting assignment:

Your name and business name   (1 slide)

Project outline: work that the prospect would like performed   (1 slide)

Rationale: why is the project or problem important to the organization    ( 1 – 2 slides)

History: what has been done before   (0- 2 slides)

Method: your firm’s approach to the project or problem   (1 – 3 slides)

Results: this is the body of the talk.  Present the key results and findings. Do not present all results or findings.  (2 – 6 slides)

Summary:   (1 – 2 slides)

Back-up:  prepare slides that answer expected questions   (1 – 3 slides)

Keep things simple and focus on a few key points.

Repeat the key insights.

Know your audience and adjust the presentation as needed.

The post-presentation informal Q & A is very important.

Make eye contact,  be approachable and it’s OK to smile  (but this is business, not social, so know your role).

Make your audience want to learn more.

Thanks for reading,


Charisma and the Way You Say What You Say

Is it my imagination,  or are people called upon to do much more public speaking now as compared to 20 years ago? I had a 15+ year career in sales and that kept me talking all day.   In addition to sales calls,  there were company meetings and I was frequently called upon to give presentations and participate in the whole give and take.   But  there was no need to be  “on”  and repping a brand 24/7.   In fact,  human beings didn’t consider themselves a  “brand”—we had reputations.   We had off hours, during which time we could relax without feeling anxious about it.   That was then.

Now I’ve got the Freelance consulting thing going on and demands to stand and deliver have about doubled.   Networking plays a major role in business development for the self-employed and business owners.   I do some teaching and occasionally speak to a local business group,  to demonstrate my credibility and promote visibility.

These days,  we’re all out there self-promoting and doing all that we can to attract new customers,  retain current clients,  obtain venture capital,  get a job or a promotion,  get our child into the  “right”  school and generally look like we are a valuable asset to those who are holding the goodies we desire.   For obvious reasons,  the ability to communicate well has never been more essential.  We need to learn how to inject some charisma into our presentations.

Charisma means a special gift in Greek and charismatic speakers have the unique and valuable gift of connecting with their audience and persuading them to grant the speaker their trust and loyalty.   Charismatic speakers are able to make their audience understand,  buy in to,  identify with,  get excited about and remember the cause and message that they addresses.   Charismatic speakers are adept at painting vivid word pictures by judiciously weaving stories and anecdotes,  humor and metaphors into their presentation in a way that causes the audience to align with them and their goals and opinions.

We all come by at least some of this naturally.   We all use metaphors,  rhetorical questions and other turns of phrase on a regular basis.  We can learn to become more conscious of our natural speaking style and ability by practicing speaking techniques when chatting with friends and family.   In time,  you’ll be able to comfortably inject some charisma when called upon to speak to a group.

Metaphors  are an excellent way to explain and illustrate a message and can persuade a skeptical audience to understand and embrace a new concept.   Martin Luther King, Jr.  displayed his mastery of the use of metaphor in his 1963  “I Have a Dream”  speech,  when he likened the US constitution to a  “promissory note”  that guaranteed the inalienable rights of life,  liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 Contrasts  often combine reason and passion.  They clarify the speaker’s position on the subject by comparing it to its opposite.  In his 1961 inaugural address,   President John F. Kennedy spoke the immortal words,  “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”  Benjamin Franklin noted that  “Content makes poor men rich;  discontent makes rich men poor.”  Similes  also compare and contrast,  as Muhammad Ali did when he famously announced that  “I’ll be  floating like a butterfly and stinging  like a bee.”

Then there is the use of story telling.   Stories can be where to use Analogy,  which points to the similarities between two things and on which a comparison can be based.   For example,  if your purpose is to build confidence and loyalty in a group and rally the members to face a difficult challenge,  the story you present may summarize when yourself or a group of people  (e.g. Londoners during the bombing in World War II)  pulled together,  kept their spirits up and faced the challenge with courage and resolve,  eventually prevailing.

Charismatic speakers are compelling and memorable.  Their skill is formidable,  but not entirely unattainable.   With practice,   we can learn to paint the picture for the audience,  frame the message,  influence priorities,  win confidence and portray ourselves as a leader.

Thanks for reading,