Off-The-Cuff: Tips For Improving Impromptu Speaking Skills

Should you ever find yourself in a situation that calls for unscripted speaking, take some tips from executive speaking coach Anett Grant, who shared some secrets of the trade to help master the art of impromptu speech.

Speaking “off the cuff” has its benefits.

For one, extemporaneous speech can humanize a speaker by making him or her seem less robotic or scripted. But, given high-pressure situations and the immediacy of today’s digital world, ad hoc speaking can also lead to serious gaffes, especially from organizational leaders.

For example, there was the time the CEO of lux yoga-outfitter Lululemon said during a TV interview in 2013 that the company’s popular exercise pants “don’t work for some women’s bodies” when trying to explain reports that the pants were too sheer.  There was also the time in July 2014 when Boeing CEO Jim McNerney announced on a conference call that he wouldn’t be retiring soon because, as he put it, “The heart will still be beating, the employees will still be cowering.” Unsurprisingly, Boeing employees did not find the humor in what McNerney later said was a joke.

“There’s so much pressure on CEOs to be effective because their level of scrutiny is amazing, not just by the media, but by internal people as well,” said Anett Grant, an executive speaking and leadership development coach and CEO and founder of Executive Speaking, Inc.

There’s so much pressure on CEOs to be effective because their level of scrutiny is amazing, not just by the media, but by internal people as well.

Grant has spent years helping CEOs and executives work on their impromptu speaking skills and recently took on a research project with University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate Amanda Taylor to examine how well CEOs can approximate their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to speaking.

What Grant and Taylor found and wrote about in their 2014 paper, “It’s More Than Just Talk: Patterns of CEO Impromptu Communication,” is that CEOs generally tend to overestimate their impromptu speaking abilities.

“CEOs did not have an accurate picture of their strengths and weaknesses,” Grant said. “This is troublesome for chief executives because of the ‘always-on’ nature of today’s business world. Impromptu speaking is extremely important in this environment, and CEOs need to be more self-aware of the areas in which they need improvement.”

The issue isn’t relegated to high-profile CEOs, either. Association executives may often find themselves in an impromptu discussion after a board meeting, or answering reporters’ questions following a press conference, or talking informally with members during a fundraising dinner, and none of these events come with a script.

But, “you don’t have to have a script to be in control,” Grant said. “There are tools. There are capabilities you can develop that can give you the same control.”

Grant shared some of those tools in a brief Q&A:

Why do you think some CEOs have a higher estimation of their impromptu speaking abilities?

One of the reasons is that they get very managed feedback: “You’re great!” What are you going to say to the CEO, “You’re not very good”?

That’s one reason. Everybody wants to tell the CEO they’re good, and there have been a lot of studies that show the higher the status of the person, the more people perceive them as being more effective.

Is there something CEOs generally overestimate?

One of the skills they overestimate is their fluency. They think they’re much more fluent than they really are. And by fluency I mean, do they have a lot of “ah’s”, “er’s”, “you know’s,” etc. There’s a huge overestimation in fluency. When CEOs are speaking scripted they get it. When it’s rehearsed they’re fluent, but when they’re off the cuff, a lot of CEOs do not have the skills to maintain fluency.

How do you work with them to get rid of some of those verbal ticks?

There are processes. It’s not magic.

I work on a three-dimensional approach to learning fluency. One dimension is to learn your breathing pattern because you have to connect your speaking with your breathing. Another approach is to learn your phrasing patterns, because you have to know how to speak in phrases, and another approach is concentration and using rhythm because then you get into the flow and eliminate them.

It’s a three-pronged approach: first, your breathing, then your sentence structure, then your rhythm.

What other techniques do you teach clients?

The most important element is to get into a rhythm. One easy way to get into a rhythm is to use what’s called a rhythmic build or a repetition, because if you use repetition you have time to think. If you use repetition, you get into patterning. If you use repetition, you create a crescendo. [Did you see that?]

Have any other tips on perfecting impromptu speaking skills? Please share in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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