Today’s leaders have abundant opportunities to speak impromptu. Whether in team meetings, elevator chats, corridor conversations, coffee room encounters, or parking lot chats—our off-the-cuff speaking skills are becoming increasingly important in today’s fast-paced, open office working environment.
The power of these moments is that they give leaders the chance to pitch our ideas, bring others around to our point of view, build our personal brand, strengthen relationships and inspire followership. In fact, they define the new normal for communicating in business.
But so many of these are missed opportunities because impromptu speaking is often characterized by verbiage that’s blurted out at the moment. Typically we hear a rush of words or half-baked ideas, punctuated by “um’s” and “ah’s” and “I think” or “maybe” and “I’m not sure, but.”
The truth is that speaking impromptu isn’t really about being totally spontaneous. The best off-the-cuff speakers prepare in a deliberate way. The following steps will enable you to prepare to be brilliantly spontaneous.
Be Intent on Leading
Begin by seeing every interaction as a potential leadership moment.
Passing a staff member in the hall and saying “How’s it going,” may be an impromptu encounter but it is a lost leadership moment. Instead, share your vision or convey a sense of direction. Say, “I liked your comments at the meeting – they were a good contribution to our campaign for increased customer focus.” In meetings, seek opportunities to turn around a discussion or bring about a collaborative solution. If a staff member pops into your office and says, “Do you have a moment,” rather than saying, “No, not now,” realize that this could be a leadership moment.
Multiply these encounters by 20 or 30 in a day, and you will see that achieving impromptu leadership involves an awareness that you can lead in every situation. Being alert to each opportunity is critical.
Keep Leadership Messages in Mind
Whether you’re the CEO, the head of a division, a team leader, or simply a committed team member, have a set of messages “in the ready” so you can draw upon them when you’re in impromptu conversation.
Ask yourself what one message you want all your listeners to walk away with—what’s that compelling idea you want them to have when they think of your firm or your division or your team? Keep that message uppermost in your mind.
Also, have targeted messages in your mind for individuals you might encounter. An executive I know holds a message in mind for each colleague. For the President, his current message is, “Would you be the keynote speaker at our next retreat?” For the heads of the firm’s businesses it is, “Are we in the CIO department meeting your needs?” For his own team, it is, “How’s Project X coming along?” These messages will likely not come to you spontaneously unless you have them already planted in your mind.
Preparing to be spontaneous also means having a strategy for collecting your thoughts “ at the moment.” We in The Humphrey Group have developed a template for that purpose. It’s called the Leader’s Script. It is a simple, easy-to-use model that allows you to structure remarks for any occasion, instantly. It has four elements:
- A grabber that reaches out to the person or group you’re talking to and connects with them.
- A message that states in one clear sentence what you believe or are arguing.
- A set of proof points that support your message.
- A call to action that shows next steps.
So, for example, if you are at lunch with a prospective client, and he turns to you and says, “So who are your competitors?” you might use the Leader’s Script template as follows: (Grabber) I’m glad you asked. (Message) We don’t actually have any competitors, since we are differentiated in the marketplace. (Proof points) 1. We have an elite group of customers; 2. We design one-of-a-kind solutions for them. 3. And we share the profits with them. (Call to action) We’d love to explore this approach with you.
Without this template you might have answered, “Who are our competitors, um, well there’s Company X, and Y, to name just a few.” You’d not only be giving your competitors “air time,” but you’d be missing out on selling your services.
Virtually every impromptu conversation involves answering questions. Spontaneous eloquence requires that you have clear, compelling answers to whatever questions may be asked. But how should you prepare for these queries?
Let’s suppose you’re going to be on a conference call with analysts. Sort through your material and group it into subject areas—then prepare answers to possible questions in each area. If you’re up for a promotion, you’ll certainly be asked about your qualifications. Be ready to show that you have each of the skills required. Or if you’re going to a client meeting, prepare answers to possible questions, including why you are the firm they should be dealing with, who in your company will be supporting the client relationship, and what relevant success stories you have had in the past.
Rehearse Impromptu Remarks
A friend of Winston Churchill once said that Churchill spent the better part of his career practicing his extemporaneous remarks.
I have worked with clients throughout my career to rehearse them for impromptu situations. One executive came to me because she was a candidate for a CEO position, and was concerned she’d speak too fast during the interview. I worked with her, videotaped her, and slowed her down so she sounded more confident. She won the position.
The benefits of rehearsing are abundant. When we work with individuals, we help them pace themselves, use stronger eye contact, develop more assertive body language, choose words that are confident, positive, and collaborative, and hone their listening skills. If you don’t have access to a coach, videotape yourself, watch, and adjust.
My new book, Impromptu: Leading in the Moment (Wiley, December 2017) elaborates on these points and shows you how to become a brilliant, spontaneous speaker. It emphasizes the importance of preparation. Impromptu speaking should never involve “winging it” and hoping things turn out well. Often they won’t! Prepare to be spontaneous, and you will dazzle your audiences with your “naturally” charismatic style.
Have you read?
Judith Humphrey’s book Impromptu: Leading in the Moment (Wiley; 2017).
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