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Use these tools to help you think fast and talk smart.

By Matt Abrahams

On the first day of my Essentials of Strategic Communication class, many of my students fear me. No, I’m not mean or unsympathetic. But like my fellow teachers, I employ the “cold call.” This age-old device tests students’ acumen by asking a student to respond immediately to a question. Now I am not a fan of cold calling in my classes, and when I explain this to my students, I can hear the collective sigh of relief. However, I immediately tell them that we will work together to hone their impromptu speaking skills so that they will be more confident when confronted with the litany of spontaneous speaking situations they will face in their personal and professional lives.

The reality is that in business spontaneous speaking is much more prevalent than planned speaking (e.g., presentations). Think of being called upon to introduce someone to others, or having your boss ask you for feedback on a new idea, or handling questions at the end of a meeting. These spontaneous speaking situations occur all the time.

Here are some of the ways I prepare my students to be ready for these off-the-cuff conversations.

Step 1: Get out of Your Own Way

The very first thing that gets in your way when impromptu speaking is you: Your wanting to do well, to give the right answer, to have your feedback be meaningful and memorable actually works against you. Before speaking, you likely judge what you intend to say and weigh it against your internal criteria — “what I intend to say isn’t insightful, helpful, worthy, relevant, etc.” This pre-evaluation work decreases the effort you can put into successfully speaking spontaneously.

Rather than striving for greatness, challenge yourself to just accomplish the task at hand — answer the question, provide the feedback, introduce your colleague. By reducing the pressure you put on yourself, you will increase the likelihood of doing well. Simply put: Setting greatness as your goal gets in the way of you ever getting there.

Of course, this is easier said than done. You are working against habits that you’ve developed over the course of your life. But by giving yourself permission to respond in the moment, rather than get it right, you can get out of your own way and speak well.

Further, many people employ tools or heuristics that they believe will help them “game the game” of spontaneous speaking. For example, in advance, you might stockpile possible answers to questions that could come up. Or, you might borrow information from what others have said right before your turn when giving feedback. Or finally, you might rely on verbal patterns to help you through, such as starting every introduction of someone with “It gives me great pleasure…”. The problem with these devices is twofold:

  1. They require cognitive effort that reduces your ability to understand the demands of the situation (i.e., you may miss some nuanced information because you are busy searching through your mental stockpile).
  2. You potentially lose out on an authentic moment because you are not immediately present — you are reacting (that is, acting out what you were previously thinking), rather than responding to the demands of the moment.

The single best way to avoid falling victim to these heuristics is to quiet your busy mind and really listen to what is needed in the moment. Focus on what people are saying and how they are saying it. In so doing, you get out of your own way and can respond authentically.

Step 2: See the Opportunities Over the Challenges

Getting out of your own way is very important. But you must also change how you see the situation you find yourself in. You need to see the spontaneous speaking situation as an opportunity, rather than a challenge or a threat. For example, when I coach executives on Q&A after their presentations, they often see it as an adversarial experience — them versus the media, investors, whomever. I work with these senior leaders to change their perception. A Q&A session is actually an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to clarify; it’s an opportunity to understand; it’s an opportunity for dialogue and engagement.

Seeing impromptu speaking as an opportunity feels very different. You are more willing to engage. When you feel challenged, you will likely do the bare minimum to respond because you are protecting yourself. If you see the interaction as an opportunity where you have a chance to explain and expand, you are going to interact in a more connected, collaborative way with your audience.

These in-the-moment speaking situations are ones that afford you opportunities. So when you are at a corporate dinner and your boss turns to you and says, “You know our guest better than the rest of us. Would you mind introducing her?” you say, “Great, thank you for the opportunity,” rather than, “Oh no! I better get this right.”

Improvisation provides a great resource for this type of situational reframing. I have had the good fortune to learn from and co-teach classes with Adam Tobin, who is not only a senior lecturer in Film and Media Studies at Stanford, but also a master improviser. Adam taught me the most famous of all improvisation sayings is“yes and.”The “yes and” mindset directs improvisers not only to embrace whatever offers their partner provides, but to extend and expand those offers. “Yes and”opens up myriad opportunities not just in spontaneous speaking, but in life.

Step 3: Leverage Structure

Now that you’ve gotten out of your own way and reframed your situation, it’s time to respond. However, you don’t respond in some sort of stream-of-consciousness rambling. Rather, you respond in a structured manner. Structure is important because it increases what academics label processing fluency — the effectiveness with which information is cognitively assimilated. Many structures exist, but here are two of the most useful:

Problem-Solution-Benefit

You start by addressing what the issue is, or the problem. You then talk about a way of solving it, and finally, you speak to the benefits of following through on your plan. This structure is very persuasive and effective. This article is set up using the problem-solution-benefit structure. I started with the challenge of impromptu speaking, then moved to potential ways to address the problem, and I end by talking about the benefits of adopting the solutions I provided.

What? So what? Now what?

You start by talking about what “it” is (e.g., your feedback or your answer), then you discuss why it is important to the recipient(s), and finally, you explain what the next steps are (i.e., how the recipient can apply the feedback or answer).

I often provide my Essentials of Strategic Communication MBA students feedback using this structure. For example, after a student successfully presents her case analysis, I might say, “The portion of your talk that addressed the detailed steps of the communication rollout plan (What?) was very helpful because it clearly laid out the metrics for success (So what?). Please leverage that type of analysis in the other aspects of your next case analysis (Now what?).”

The reality is that when you are in a spontaneous speaking situation, you have to do two things simultaneously: You have to figure out what to say and how to say it. These structures help you present your message. When you become comfortable with these structures, you will be able to respond more quickly to impromptu speaking situations.

The last day of my business school class is very different than the first. We do an activity where each of my students stands up and gives an unprepared toast to something of value they are taking away from our time together. Invariably, they express their gratitude for learning how to speak in spontaneous situations. The best part is, they excitedly demonstrate their ability to present this way in the toasts they give!

By getting out of your own way, reframing your situations as opportunities rather than threats, and leveraging structures, you too can think faster, talk smarter, and become a more compelling, confident, and connected spontaneous speaker.