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A few months ago, Cindy a 16 year old high school student showed up as a guest at the West Side Talkers toastmasters public speaking club that I founded on the Upper West Side of New York City.
After seeing her do a great job at “table topics” (which is the segment of our program that helps people work on their impromptu speaking skills), I casually walked up to Cindy and asked “so what brought you to our club?” First she joked and smiled while pointing to her mom standing beside her. And then she told me something that brought an answer to the burning question that I had pondered while seeing her speak;
I thought, “How is a 16 year old high school kid this good at engaging her audience while thinking on her feet?” And then the words came out of her mouth, “I’m a high school student, and I’m involved with public forum debate as well as parliamentary and model congress debate and I want to improve on my public speaking.” Bingo! I got my answer. Now I knew why she was so good at “thinking and speaking on her feet.”
Thinking on Your Feet is an Acquired Skill
Contrary to popular belief, being great at impromptu speaking is not something you’re born with. In fact, being great at public speaking in general, is a skill that needs to be picked up and developed. Cindy was lucky to be going to a school that had put a strong focus on developing ones leadership and communication skills and when she showed up at our club, she was already well on that path.
It wasn’t just that she was good at speaking that impressed me, it was with the ease and effortless way that she went about responding to a spontaneous question during our table topics segment that really piqued my interest. She delivered a 2 minute spontaneous response that was not only well structured, but one which she engaged her audience with great content and humor.
What most people don’t realize is that the skills needed in mastering the art of delivering a prepared speech and those that are needed to mastering the art of speaking spontaneously are distinctly different.
Mastering the art of “thinking on your feet” will not only help you with being able to easily break in and out of your prepared talks and be spontaneous with your audience, but it will also help you with being better at speaking up at board meetings, mastering job interviews, or being hosted as a guest on a radio or talk show where being able to successfully respond to spontaneous questions is crucial.
The Unfortunate Consequences of NOT Mastering this Skill
To really get a grasp of the real consequences of not being good at impromptu speaking, one need not look further than our republican presidential debates that took place earlier this year.
According to a focus group that was conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz immediately after the 4th republican presidential debate on November 10th, 2015 on the Fox Business Network, Florida senator Marco Rubio won the debate. When asked to describe Rubio in one word, the focus group participants said:
Now fast forward just a few months to Feb 7th, 2016. Just a day after the 8th Republican debate, a headline in vanity fair summarized it all; “Marco Rubio short-circuits during GOP debate.” The Washington post went further by putting a damper on his days left in the campaign with the headline “Debate slip-up seems to halt Rubio’s momentum.” It was obvious to everyone that Marco Rubio was the biggest loser of the 8th GOP debate.
So the question begs, “what happened to the eloquent, passionate, and inspirational speaker that Macro Rubio was known to be just a few month prior? What was it that lead to his disastrous performance at the GOP debate on the night of Feb 6th which became a turning point in his campaign?
There was one distinguishing feature that separated the GOP debate on the night of Saturday Feb 6th at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire from all of the republican debates prior which became a game-changer for the participants.
If you were to re-watch the full debate you would hear the moderator ABC News journalists David Muir say the following in his opening comments, “Good evening everyone. This is the first time since Iowa and the only time before the new Hampshire primary that the republican candidates will have the opportunity to face each other.”
It would be worthwhile to watch the first 15 seconds of the clip below so you can actually hear it for yourself.
Having the “Opportunity to face each-other“ was what made the difference in Marco Rubio’s fateful and disastrous performance that night, where he short-circuited under pressure and repeated the same talking points 4 times during his spat with Governor Chris Christie.
For a quick reminder of Marco Rubio’s debacle take a look at this 36 second clip.
Marco Rubio is a great speaker and knows how to “prepare” and craft a great speech and then “memorize and internalize it.” And then he knows how to go out and deliver it masterfully and beautifully using his great skills as a speaker with great emotional dynamic vocal variety and storytelling abilities.
As long as he was delivering his “well prepared statements and talking points” to questions that he had anticipated in advance, he did well and looked “presidential.” But the minute that cycle was interrupted, and he was put under pressure, that all evaporated into thin air!
The very skill that Marco Rubio was great and excels at which is to “prepare, memorize and internalize” became his greatest enemy that night when it came to drawing on the skill of “thinking on your feet.” When Governor Christie kept jabbing at him, the pressure got too intense for him and he couldn’t think fast enough on his feet. His brain short-circuited and he went back to his “memorized” talking points making him sound like an old broken record player. And unfortunately this blunder cost him big and ultimately put a nail in his bid for the presidency.
The New Hampshire primaries came only a few days following this debacle, and with this experience fresh in the minds of voters they knew that this wasn’t a man to elect as president. The thinking was simple; “if he can’t handle a few jabs during a debate how can he withstand the pressures of running a country.”
It’s unfortunate that Marco Rubio had not realized this shortcoming of his with impromptu speaking and taken action man years prior to improve in this area of his speaking. If he had voraciously studied and practiced the “art of impromptu” in the years prior leading up to his run for president, things could have turned out differently for him in his bid for presidency.
Impromptu Speaking is a Distinct Skill.
Mastering the art of impromptu is a skill that incorporates the art of speaking but is a separate and distinct skill that when combined with the skills of being able to deliver a great “prepared speech” will allow you to take your engagement with your audience to greater heights.
When an audience hears and sees you be able to break out of your “prepared speech” at spontaneous moments before, during, and after your speech, the connection doesn’t only feel magical for you, it also has the same feeling for your audience and you will connect with them on an entirely different level.
Not all of us have been fortunate enough to be like Cindy and be involved in debate and speaking clubs from an early age. However, no matter what age we start we can still get on the road to developing this priceless skill. In fact, I was already in my 30s when I started on my path to speaking mastery.
Once I got on the path, In a very short time, I could identify where my strengths and weakness were. I found out pretty quickly that I was more comfortable in the “world of preparation” than being in the “world of spontaneity. ”
After watching the debate that fateful night of Feb 6th 2016 and seeing Marco Rubio fall apart like that, I could surely relate. In my early years of speaking development, I remember once putting together an hour long workshop and literally memorizing the entire script word-for-word because that’s what I was comfortable with. It was my crutch.
It worked for some time, but then one day it backed fired when I was unexpectedly cut off from my script and put on the spot and had to step out of my script and be spontaneous. When it was time to cut back into my script, I lost my place, drew a blank and froze. I did not only lose my train of thought that night, but worse, I lost the credibility with my audience.
After that fateful evening, I realized that mastering the art of impromptu is an essential and critical skill that cannot be overlooked if you want to be a speaker that really connects with your audience and as a result, I took concrete steps to mastering that skill.
Steps to Mastering the “art of Impromptu”
There are no magic solutions or quick fixes to becoming a master at “thinking on your feet.” And one of the biggest keys to successfully developing this skill is simply doing and practicing it often. However still, just as our GPS helps us navigate in taking the shortest route on our road trips, there are also a number of short cuts that you can take to developing the skills of impromptu speaking.
The following are steps that I took in order to fast track the development of my impromptu speaking skills and will surely help you do the same.
1. Join an Improv School
On top of all the countless hours of speaking courses and boot camps that I have immersed myself in, taking classes in improv was the second best thing that I did for my speaking development. It was like the cement that sealed and filled up the cracks in the foundation of my spontaneous speaking development.
Because of the training I did with improv, I am at a very different place with my skills at impromptu speaking than I was when I first started on the road to my speaking development. Today I embrace spontaneity with my audience whereas back then I had distanced myself from it.
Get on Google and do a search for an improv school within your city. Most major cities have improv schools with classes at varying skill levels from intro to advanced. If you live in the United States, major Cities like New York, Chicago, and Toronto have a number of very good improv schools that you can join.
2. Seek out Opportunities to Practice Spontaneous Speaking.
You can read up on improv and you can read books on speaking, but if you don’t ever take the stage and put theory into practice you simply won’t develop. It’s like anything else in life. There’s no substitute for experience.
So whenever you have the opportunity to speak you should take it. Being on stage in front of various audiences is where your skills will get anchored. If you are the type that always likes to work with a scripted speech, try changing it up and working without a script. If you are not a politician or in an arena where your words might be scrutinized by the media, then your speech really does not need to be scripted word-for-word. In fact it shouldn’t. Instead use bullet points to anchor your points and stories and speak freely and off-the-cuff. This will help build your muscles for spontaneous speaking.
3. Join a Toastmasters Club
If you’re not able to find opportunities to speak, then I’ve got a simple solution for you. Join a local toastmasters club and you’ll get plenty of opportunities. Getting involved with a toastmasters public speaking club would allow you to get increased stage time on a regular basis. Being with a toastmasters club is like having an on demand ready-made captive audience. When looking for a club to join, you’ll want to join one that puts a strong emphasis on impromptu speaking. If they also do improv it’s a definite plus. To search for toastmasters clubs in your area go to the following link.
4. Get Private Coaching
Coaching by far is the best method to fast-track your speaking development. When you combine the above suggestions with working with a qualified speech coach, the pace in your development will quadruple. Before I became a coach I had a coach. And looking back, I must say that working with my coach and mentors had literally cut many years off of my speaking development. Working with a coach is like taking the high speed highway versus the side-streets to your destination. You might eventually get to your destination, but with a coach you are guaranteed to get there much quicker!
Mastering the art of “thinking on your feet” will help take your speaking to magical new heights. You’ll be the kind of speaker that can seamlessly weave in and out of your structured speech and be “in the moment” with your audience. It is a skill that will not only help you when you’re on stage, but it will also help you with being better at speaking up at board meetings, mastering job interviews, or being hosted as a guest on a radio or talk show where being able to successfully respond to spontaneous questions is crucial. You will be able to handle anything that comes your way; whether it be a spontaneous talk, a high-Stakes Q and A, or even a political debate!
I once had attended an event where there was this speaker who was introduced to deliver a speech and then about one minute into his 20 minute presentation he starts to talk about a popular sports magazine that he had been profiled in. The magazine had written an article where a famous athlete was teaching an amateur the “art of the game.” The game happened to be golf, the athlete happened to be Tiger Woods , and this amateur happened to be the speaker at our event.
The speaker jump-started his story about the article he was in, by first saying to his audience “and by the way this has nothing to do with my speech today, I just thought that it would be an interesting thing to mention”, and then he took the actual magazine of the article and started to pass it around to the 40 people that were in his audience.
When I saw him give the magazine to the person sitting on the table beside him, everything inside me wanted to yell, “No Don’t Do it!”, because I knew right then that his speech would be doomed from the start.
What would you have done?
If you were in that audience and the magazine with the interesting article about the speaker being profiled in a major magazine about himself and a pro-golfer was handed to you, what would you do? Would you rather continue listening to the speaker and pass the article to the person next to you, or would you stop and read the article?
If you are like most people, you’d probably stop and read. As human beings we all know that curiosity can get the best of us and that’s exactly what it did with the audience that morning. In fact, some people were so absorbed in the article, that they read the entire two pages before handing it over to the person sitting next to them.
The problem in perspective
Do you see what’s wrong with this situation? When an audience gets handouts – especially with handouts that are absolutely not relevant to the speech, they get distracted and begin to tune out the speaker. And with the speaker at our event, that’s exactly what had happened. Some people had even taken the entire 2 minutes or so to finish the article.
If the speaker looses each person in his audience for at least 1 minute, that also means that for every minute of his speech, 1 person did not tune in for a 1-2 minute slice of his speech. Which also means that everyone tuned out at a different segments of time. It’s bad enough when your audience as a whole gets distracted by one segment of your speech all at once, but when their minds are scattered at different intervals, the problem is even worse. At this point there is absolutely no synergy with the speaker.
And unfortunately, because we are living today in an ADD world where stimulation is the name of the game, If you are not keeping constant engagement with your audience, you will end up losing them. It’s so easy these days for people in your audience to simply pull out their smart phones and check their email, surf the net, or check their latest facebook news feed, that once you lose them, it will be very difficult to re-engage them.
How to NOT fall into the “handout trap”
Here are some guidelines to make sure that what you give out to your audience will not detract and only enhance your presentation.
1. If it’s not relevant don’t give it out
The speaker that was at that event handed out the magazine article which had absolutely nothing to do with his talk that morning. If he was trying to build credibility by bragging about himself being together with a pro-golfer, not only did it not build his credibility, but it ruined his speech. If for example, I’m brought in to talk to an audience about the ‘art of speaking’ and I begin by sharing my accomplishments in martial arts, it won’t build credibility and it will come off as bragging. In fact, even when sharing your successes that are relevant it also needs to be communicated to the audience in a way that makes it ‘you focused.’
2. Don’t hand out a brain dump of your presentation.
Most speakers give their audience handouts that are simply a brain dump of their content – and this is wrong. If you are going to give this kind of content out it should be only done at the end of your presentation. It will only serve as a distraction by handing it out in the beginning and during your presentation.
I’m sure you’ve seen speakers handout all kinds of material before a presentation such as colorful brochures, manuals, white papers, and a carbon copy of their slide presentation. And while their audience is supposed to be listening to the speaker, they are instead busy rummaging through all the material that was handed to them. This splits them and distracts your audience from being focused on the speaker. An audience should not have to split themselves by reading what you gave them and watching you at the same time.
3. Only create handouts that get them to think and reflect
The best kind of handouts to give your audience are ones that get your audience involved, engaged and allows them to reflect.
For example in one of my handouts on marketing, I pose the following question to the audience;
What’s the top selling word in the marketing tool box?
If you notice, I insert a blank space for them to fill in. The purpose of this is to actively engage them and allow them to think, reflect, and come up with the answer as I am speaking.
In that same handout, I also give my audience the following tool(a book) to anchor what I had discussed in my speech.
Pickup this book by Frank Bettger ” How I raised myself from failure to success in selling”
And then I pose the following question;
What question do you think Frank Bettger asked when seeing his customer for the first that sparked 2 hours of conversation? ”
Again, this question allows my audience to think and reflect off of the content that I am giving them in my speech. Handouts that cause your audience to ‘think and reflect’ are an excellent way to involve your audience – especially when you’re doing a longer workshop.
And by-the -way, if you’re wondering what the answer is to the above question about Frank Bettger, it’s “How did you get started in this business?” That 1 simple question had sparked 2 hours of conversation with what turned to be his client. Behind every successful business man or women there’s a great story. It just takes asking the right kind of question to get them started.
Don’t fall into the trap that most speakers make by handing out material that unwittingly causes the audience to get distracted from the speaker. When you are up there speaking, you and your message should be the focal point and the only thing that stimulates and engages your audience.
Don’t compete with yourself for the attention of your audience by distracting them with something that you are handing out to them that’s not relevant to your speech. And if it is relevant, craft it in a way that gets your audience engaged, involved and allows them to think and reflect.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know if you have it, the feeling that comes with the anticipation of your upcoming speech. Even as you go about your normal day, you can’t stop thinking about your speech. Thoughts of the size of your audience and “all eyes on you,” are enough to set you off! And as the day of reckoning approaches, all kinds of negative thoughts start going through your head, “what will happen if forget or slur my words? what will happen If I panic? What will happen when I get that frog in my throat and can’t speak!” As the day of your speech comes closer, your thoughts grow stronger. You can’t stop thinking about it. All day and night, a minute doesn’t go by without the dreadful thoughts surrounding your speech. Now sleeping even becomes difficult. Your dreams are now dominated by nightmarish scenarios of embarrassing yourself on stage.
You now think about ways you can back out of your speech. But then you realize, “I need this speech, If I succeed, it will mean everything to my career.” And then you get a phone call, you find out that twice as many people as you originally had thought are going to be at your speech. Your anxiety just doubled. It’s off the charts. It’s redlining. And now there is no backing out. If you’ve ever experienced this, then you know what it means to have “Glaussophobia,” which is the Greek word for the “Fear of Public Speaking.” In broader terms, it’s also called Stage Fright.
So Where Does This Fear Come From?
The fear of public speaking and stage fright both point to the same subconscious process that causes a small almond sized shape set of neurons set deep inside the median temporal lobe of the brain called the Amygdala which triggers the “fight or flight” response to sudden stimuli (real danger), or “memory triggered” perceived danger which ultimately leads to the feelings of panic, anxiety, sweaty palms and wanting to run for the hills!
I know too well these feelings of panic and fear of public speaking, because for so many years, it was the 6 inch invisible clear glass wall that stood between me and my desire to speak and engage an audience. I would see others masterfully take the stage, and I would sit there just yearning to do it. The few times that I did manage to speak (by the prodding of others) were accompanied by fear and panic and without having the proper coaching or guidance, I just gave up and couldn’t make it to the other side of that invisible wall of fear.
Fast forward many years later, coaching and speaking has now become my career. What was once my biggest fear, has now become one of my biggest passions. As most people, I struggled for many years to find the path to getting past my fear of speaking, but it didn’t have to be that way. I struggled because no one ever gave me the road-map For many years, no one directed me on the path to speaking success.
For example, no one told me that most people’s fear of speaking could stem from just one 30 second bad experience in first or second grade. The teacher pushed and prodded to get you up in front of the class and do a loud reading and snickered, yelled or balked at you when you didn’t pronounce a word right. The yelling or snickering of the teacher and the class making weird faces was all that would be needed for your amygdala to record the emotional event and store it forever. The amygdala remembers all emotions and responses and then stores it in the long term memory bank. The amygdala is that part of the brain that also signals the “flight or fight” response. And the amygdala is quite immature, it can’t tell the difference between a real event such as running from a fire (flight) or the “false sense” of fear and panic of speaking to an audience (flight). It only knows a recorded emotion and treats the panic of a perceived fear (an audience) the same as it would a fire – both causing the “flight response” to be activated in the same way.
So years later, that 30 second event in grade school now gets transformed into what most people feel as the fear of public speaking. And who hasn’t had that bad experience of standing in front of class in first, second or third grade, and getting snickered, yelled or balked at by their teacher in front of the whole class. Now wonder why most of the world suffers from this fear!
Why Some People Never Developed the Fear
Have you ever wondered why some people just never developed a fear of public speaking? It all could point back to that scene in second grade. For example, John, Cindy, and Sam all had the same experience with their teacher snickering and yelling at them in front of the class. But John was a bit different. He didn’t have a highly sensitive amygdala and never processed the experience the same way Cindy and Sam did, so John never developed the fear, whereas Cindy and Sam did end up developing the fear of public speaking because of their more sensitive amygdala. Studies have shown that people with a highly sensitive amygdala were more prone to developing the fear of public speaking.
Conquering the Fear Doesn’t Have to Take Time
Many people think that phobias take time to overcome. This is simply not true. Most people say, “I have had this fear for so long, I don’t think I will ever get over it.” If you think back to the event in grade school, it only took 30 seconds to record a perceived emotional experience and tell the subconscious mind to run from anything related to getting up in front of an audience ever again.
People who have had a bad landing and develop a fear of flying, or people who have gotten into an accident and developed a fear of driving or someone who was pushed into a swimming pool at a young age and developed a fear of swimming, all had one thing in common; the onset of the fear took just seconds. If you think about it, with all these events taking just seconds to develop into a lifelong fear, shouldn’t logic dictate that a fear that took seconds to develop, be reversed in just the same time?
The good news is that it can. In fact, It has been scientifically proven that the field of energy psychology (Emotional Freedom Technique) can have a tremendous effect on the amygdale in that it can fairly quickly neutralize and desensitize the negative emotions attached to it for all phobias. And this includes the phobia of public speaking. The field of NLP (Neuro Linguist Programming) also can have a huge impact in desensitizing the amygdale to the fear of public speaking and other phobias.
I have seen these techniques work with my own eyes. Not only has it helped me years ago when I finally got on the road to conquering my fear of public speaking, but In my professional coaching practice, I now successfully use these techniques of both EFT and NLP to help my clients desensitize the fear they associate with public speaking.
Conquering The Fear Leads to Mastering The Art
Once you “conquer” the fear of public speaking, your true journey now begins. Being able to engage an audience and take them on a roller coaster ride of highs, lows, twists and turns of emotional experiences and leave them off at the gate saying, “wow, what a powerful message, what a speech, what an experience,” is truly an art form. However, you cannot embark on that road, until you have gotten off the road of fear. When you are thinking about sweaty palms, panic and sheer terror when you picture an image of yourself on stage in front of an audience, you cannot be thinking about how you can deliver a moving message or even make them laugh.
Only when you are able to laugh at yourself, will your audience laugh with you. But the good news is, that when you conquer you fear of speaking, (which can happen very quickly) you have allowed yourself to cross over and pass to other side of that invisible glass wall where you now find yourself standing on the foot of the mountain. And while you’re packing up you gear and readying yourself for the climb you look up and say, “I am now ready to journey up to the top and master the “Art of Public Speaking.”
I delivered a message of hope to the 1000 attendees at the Kean University Holocaust Memorial this past Monday evening May 2, 2011. The audience was comprised of people from all ages and ethnic backgrounds. My seven and a half minute speech was about my father’s experience in the concentration camps. My father is currently 89 years old and is thankfully living a vibrant life.
Click the play button to listen