“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain
Always a colorful character, Mark Twain got right at the heart of public speaking with wit and humor. He’s right, there is almost never such a thing as a good impromptu speech. Almost every speech you hear that you find enjoyable or compelling is the result of preparation.
But Mark Twain’s comment highlights more than the benefits of preparation, it highlights the fact that audiences are drawn in by a speech that feels impromptu. They prefer a speaker who is more conversational than mechanical, and yet there is a delicate balance being prepared and sounding scripted or mechanical.
However, true to nature, Mark Twain might have exaggerated a little bit. You don’t need to prepare for more than three weeks. The kind of preparation I’m suggesting can take as little time as a minute, but, of course, if you can give it longer, that’s even better!
Being prepared is just about the most audience-centric thing you can do. It confers a sense of importance and value on your listeners. It shows respect for their time and is arguably the least you can do in exchange for their attentiveness to you as a speaker. Plus, it ensures that what you deliver is actually received. Preparation shows—as does a lack of preparation.
All too often, though, people resist preparing for a talk. Clients have told me it feels egotistical or self-important to them, and they feel—or want to appear—more humble than that. In their minds, preparing a “speech”—whether that means welcoming remarks at an event, a thank-you for an award, or even an introduction for a speaker—feels bloated and unnecessary. Still, a speaker has a responsibility to deliver something of value to their audience, and the best way to do that is to be prepared.
When a speaker or presenter is prepared, the audience notices. The speaker is on point, and the message is clear and relevant to the audience. The prepared speaker doesn’t open with, “Well, I didn’t have time to prepare anything, so I hope you’ll bear with me.” Instead, the prepared speaker opens with an anecdote or an attention-grabbing factoid specific to that particular audience. Or the prepared speaker knows his or her goal for the talk and puts it out there right up front.
There are many who speak or present in front of groups often enough that they feel it’s okay—and in fact, for some it feels more comfortable—to just “wing it.” Wingers are gamblers. Sometimes they win, but other times they lose. Since the outcome can go either way, you have to ask yourself if you can afford a loss. Or can you afford even to risk it? If speech prep were short enough and simple enough, would you devote just a few seconds to being prepared? I think anyone would.
So here are a few simple preparation tips that not only reduce your risk but actually connect you more quickly and directly with your audience:
Develop mini stump speeches. If you know there are projects or issues that you typically need to address, take a few minutes and develop some ready message points. These should be short, crisp statements that convey value or importance, focusing on the “why” and not the “what.” If you have these in your back pocket and you’re called on to speak, you’re halfway there. Add a story or anecdote that illustrates your message, and you’re good to go.
Be selective with information. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of thinking if you just do a lot of research, present a lot of data, or share a lot of detail, that you’re prepared to address an audience. Preparation requires you to think about the significance of your talk—the “why,” not the “what”—and to be prepared to convey that before you get to any supporting information.
Disrupt Chronology. If you have only a few seconds or minutes to prepare, think about what your summary or conclusion would be for your talk—and then deliver that as your whole talk. If you feel the need to elaborate a bit more, at the very least use your summary as your opening. Disrupting chronology means serving dessert – or the audience’s takeaway – first, while their attention spans and ability to retain are highest.
[Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World, www.jocktalkbook.com]