The Challenge of Impromptu

“You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.” – Will Rogers

I am sure you have heard that the fear of public speaking is THE number one social fear of all. But do you know what number two is? It is the fear of starting a conversation with a stranger. This means that if you are ever at a networking event where you do not know anyone, you cannot wait for someone to approach you. It is up to you to start the conversation.  

You may think that it is NOT possible to prepare for an impromptu conversation, but that just means you are not familiar with Toastmasters. Toastmasters have the perfect solution and they practice it at every meeting. It is called TableTopics.

At the meeting the primary goal of the TableTopics is to give all attendees – those who did not give a prepared speech and did not have a role assigned – an opportunity to

  • face their fear of public speaking,
  • think on their feet, and
  • find their confidence.

In general, the purpose of Table Topics is to develop an ability to organize your thoughts quickly to be able to respond to any impromptu question.  And if you think about it – we find ourselves in those types of situations all the time. It could be as simple as giving an update on your latest project or it could be as torturous as being in an elevator with the CEO and trying to come up with something to say that would be less awkward than a complete silence.

Below are some impromptu speaking tips that I have learned based on my experiences with the TableTopics.

  • Take a few seconds (no more than 10) to organize your thoughts.
  • Structure your response as an mini-speech:
    • Have a beginning – your opening statement.
    • Body
      • Give reasons that support your opening statement.
      • Provide examples, etc.
    • Finally, have a conclusion – restate your main premise.
  • One easy approach is to tell a story – tie your response to something that has actually happened to you. You can use the FAT (Feel, Anecdote, Tie back) method to organize it.
  • Try to appear confident. It will give you credibility.
  • Don’t apologize. Don’t say things like “I am not good at this” or “I am not prepared”, etc. This undermines your credibility.
  • Know when to quit. Simply stop when you are done making your point. Do not ramble.
  • If you just cannot think of anything at all to say about the topic that was given to you, you can always talk about why it is so hard for you to talk about this topic.
  • As a last resort you can play a skilled politician – you can change the subject to the one you are more comfortable talking about.
  • Find opportunities to practice. Deliberately put yourself in situations that may require you to respond to random questions. Strike up a conversation with a stranger in line at a grocery store to practice asking [your prepared in advance] ice-breaker questions.
  • Relax and have fun! The reason you are at a networking event in the first place is to talk to people. The reason you were asked a question is because they want to hear you talk (probably to avoid talking themselves, like I do).
  • Finally, be yourself. Everything else may backfire.

It will always be hard to start a conversation with a stranger, especially if you are super introverted like me. However, your awareness of this challenge is the first step to making it easier. Next steps are to read “The Fine Art of Small Talk”, get out of your comfort zone, and share the tips that work for you below.

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