The Art of Impromptu Speaking – How to Win at the Game of “Thinking on Your Feet”

keep-calm-and-think-on-your-feet 2A 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!

Final Thoughts

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!



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