Often you are able to prepare thoroughly for a presentation—to think about major messages, articulate them, practice ways of explaining and supporting them. But what about when you don't have time to prepare? There are many occasions when all eyes are unexpectedly upon you. Such occasions happen regularly; during public gatherings, business meetings, and conversations with managers or colleagues, you may be asked for an explanation or opinion. Learning to deliver impromptu remarks effectively is an essential, everyday communication skill, one that can be learned and practiced.


Even for brief remarks, you need to be aware of your purpose. If you're responding to a question about a process, your purpose may be to inform; you simply want everyone present to know the steps of the process or the specifics of one part of it. But it could be that you want to persuade listeners of something—perhaps that a certain step in the process offers little value and should be changed. Knowing what you want to achieve helps you focus on a central message and organization. As you speak, it will help you select the words with which you explain or persuade.


Of the many messages you could probably emphasize, select only one if your time to speak is short, one that seems best able to help you achieve your purpose. If your purpose is to provide information, perhaps your message is an explanation of the process. But you might also choose to inform by discussing why the process is as it is, to name the steps and explain why they are taken. If your purpose is to persuade listeners that some steps of the process should be changed, you would focus on those steps and the reasons you advocate change.


Closely related to purpose and message is the organization of your comments. Become familiar with forms or patterns of organization that you can call on when you have no time to prepare your comments. A chronological order, for example, usually works well for explaining the steps of a process. But if you want to persuade listeners to change those steps, using a cause-effect-solution pattern might strengthen your message. Other patterns that can be particularly helpful when you're put on the spot are problem-solution, past-present-future, and local-regional-national-global. Practice these patterns in low-stakes situations so that they are readily accessible to you in impromptu speaking occasions.


Above all, don't forget what you know about effective delivery. As you speak, maintain eye focus; connecting with listeners will help them believe that you are a confident speaker in full control of the speaking situation.

Adopt a posture or stance that illustrates your interest and concern; use your voice to provide emphasis. Align your facial expressions with your words so listeners are not distracted by mixed messages.

And, practice. The more opportunities you have to deliver impromptu comments, the easier it becomes. Practice when you speak with colleagues and friends. Practice when you are in a meeting. Practice with colleagues by sharing an article from a professional journal or listening to a spoken word program, then asking questions of each other and evaluating the strength of the response.

With practice, you'll be prepared to be spontaneously effective each time you make impromptu remarks.