How can I become good at speaking extemporaneously?
November 29, 2007 10:18 PM   Subscribe

How can I become good at speaking extemporaneously?

I like to think of myself as an excellent writer. I can write a persuasive essay that's extremely well-thought-out and that wins almost everyone to my side. I can bring in lots of examples and draw all sorts of connections.

I say that not to toot my own horn, but to demonstrate that the mental facilities for rhetoric are in place.

But even if you picked an issue that I knew cold, had recently written about, and felt very passionate about, I'd come across as a bumbling fool if you asked me to stand up and deliver a short speech on it.

I understand that writing versus speaking gives me time to prepare and reflect, and also that some level of my problems with speaking come from an irrational anxiety of public speaking. But, aside form these obvious facts, how can I go about becoming better at speaking off the cuff? It needn't even be formal public speaking; I might be with a few friends and be asked why I'm supporting the candidate I'm supporting, and have difficulty coming up with any cogent response. It's not just the anxiety at play. How do I get better at this?
posted by fogster to Work & Money (13 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

Ask a family member or friend to give you a topic at random and let you speak for 3 minutes impromptu. When you finish, take a minute of rest, and then get another random topic.

Record what you spoke, and be your own critic. You will improve once you realize how to reduce the BS in the content.

Hope that helps.
posted by manish at 10:22 PM on November 29, 2007

Best answer: practice.

right this second. look at something on your desk and start telling an imaginary person all about it. when you run out of steam, pick another object in the room and talk about it. out loud. some improvisers time themselves doing this for 30 secs or a couple mins, for 5-10 objects a day.

you don't need to speak exclusively about the object, either. an improvised speech about a pen, for instance, can include a tangent about the sleepy guy who works in the shipping department at work that you got the pen from, and then a bit of info about the pen, and then a list of special secret things you could write about with the pen.

the most important thing is to do it out loud, and not think too much. just keep talking. it gets easier.
posted by twistofrhyme at 10:30 PM on November 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

I have this same problem. It often comes when I kind of step outside myself and add another observer to the proceedings. My first advice was to know your stuff cold, but in light of the speaking among friends thing that you refer to (which I also suffer from, in light of the whole situation of placing yourself as an observer of yourself), I suggest just getting one thing across.

If you're like me (or Rakim), it's a problem of how can I keep my composure when all sorts of thoughts fight for exposure?

I have a ton of answers to any one question and 40 different ways to start in with the reply. The key is to just simplify it down to one main thing and risk sounding like a simpleton. Just trust that as you bring out one point, another will follow, and another, and another. Like when you write.

It's hard to do at first. I stumbled upon this when I just gave up trying to get out the 40,000 things in my head, and just went with the first thing I thought, and then started stringing ideas together.

So if the question is - why support Ron Paul? (sorry, I couldn't resist). The first thing you'll think of is some policy you agree with him on. But wait, there was this critical ruling that marked a departure in the issue, and that happened on a day that was especially auspicious because the discussion could have gone any number of ways and... Whoa - stop.

Just start with "I like x". Then, instead of going for the 400-year history of the thing, start in with one more thing. String it along, one point by one point. When I write, my ideas come in clusters as some phrase or word sparks an idea. It'll have to come like that in your speaking too. So you kind of have to trust it will.

Or so, that's what worked for me. You won't get to say all the wonderful things you want to say, because you won't always remember them. But you'll get better at saying most of what you want to say.
posted by cashman at 10:30 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

1. Practice.
2. Practice.
3. Practice.
4. Practice.
5. Practice.
6. Practice.
7. Practice.
8. Practice.
9. Practice.
10. Practice.

Joining an organization where you have to get involved and talk might help. Toastmasters is also a good organization which will help you become a better speaker.
posted by toaster at 10:31 PM on November 29, 2007

Improv classes. You get the practice, and you're surrounded by other people who are in the same boat as you, so there's a lot less shame danger.
posted by davejay at 10:51 PM on November 29, 2007

Best answer: Has anyone mentioned practice yet?

I competed in high school (in the state and on the national level) in international extemporaneous speaking, which is a speech event where you pick three questions about the international news out of a hat, and have half an hour to research (using periodicals that I'd at least glanced over before), write, and memorize a seven minute speech. It's not an exact analogy to what you're discussing - you seem to be asking about even less prep time than I had, but I think the principle is basically the same.

I should say that I was very successful in this event, but not because I'm a naturally gifted public speaker. I speak too quickly and occasionally can be accused of muttering. I have to force myself to present reasonably well.

I think about it in terms of a set of mental muscles you have to develop. A lot of it is familiarity with what you're speaking about - it's hard to focus on delivery if you're worried about screwing up vital pieces of information - so confidence that you know what you're talking about is important. But if you're really delivering a speech - more than just a couple sentences, really - then what becomes really important is organization. If you're not organized, you will forget something, you will feel obligated to go back and mention it, and you will lose your train of thought, and you will hem and haw. It's pretty much that simple. The best trick I learned in four years of doing that shit in high school was to realize that a speech is NOT the same thing as a written paper, because your audience can't go back easily and remind themselves of what you were talking about. That makes explicit structure really important, to the extent that it can be a good idea to almost literally give a verbal outline before you say whatever point you're making: "X is true because of A and B, and C. When we think about 'A,' we have to consider two points..." and then explain whatever they are, and then "So when considering A, we have to consider these two specific issues. But in the larger context of X, we also have to consider B...." and just do that. Sticking to a formula makes it easier to remember.

It sounds corny, and maybe you don't want to come off quite that formalistic, but it helps your audience follow your train of thought, and it keeps you from losing it. After awhile, you may find that you've internalized that method of presentation and you don't need to do it quite so explicitly. But it's helpful to try it. If nothing else, it helps exercise that organizational muscle.

As for how to practice...that's more complicated. Toastmasters is a great organization, in my experience. If you can't sucker someone into being an audience for you, you can try to pick a topic and videotape yourself speaking about it, then watching the tapes looking for things to improve. That's never really worked out great for me, but I know some people who swore by it.
posted by dismas at 11:09 PM on November 29, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Besides practice, talk to yourself. Seriously, talk to yourself, about various topics that might come up. I used to do a lot of guesting on morning radio shows, but until I called up and got on the air, I had no idea if it was a morning zoo show, or a dozy quiet-ride-to-work show.

I found that if I talked to myself about the topic as I went about my day, I was ready for any kind of show. The more you play with information, the more ways you can present it. Of course, since you don't have a single subject of expertise, you'll be doing a lot more talking to yourself than I did, but it's also a good way to pass the time.
posted by headspace at 11:21 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

dismas is right on - particuarly about the advantages of structuring what you're going say. Obviously it doesn't always need to be that formal. It can be as simple as making sure you're clearly identifying your main points and perhaps adding a very brief recap at the end of your speech. If this is hard, you may want to start out more formal - the structure can help you as well as your audience. You might also need to work on pacing yourself. You don't need to race through a speech. Going slowly feels dumb, at first, but it gives you more time to mentally keep track of your speech, and it makes it easier for your audience to understand. You really do need an audience, even if it's just your friends. Speaking in front of a video camera never helped me. Oh, and yeah - practice!

(Like dismas, I did foreign extemp for years, and I did pretty well at it. But I'm definitely not a natural - I speak quickly, I stutter, and I mumble. Practice makes all the difference.)
posted by ubersturm at 12:53 AM on November 30, 2007

A second here for Toastmasters. Part of each meeting involves talking about a selected topic without preparation. You will get practice in front of an audience that will give you feedback and lots of tips to be more effective.
posted by bluesky43 at 4:55 AM on November 30, 2007

Best answer: If you don't want to join Toastmasters (though it would help--despite the emphasis on prepared speeches, there are actually a lot more opportunities for extemporaneous speeches than prepared ones), try googling 'table topics' to get an idea of the sorts of activities they do to practice. It's harder to do those yourself, but if you have a friend, co-worker or spouse who'd be willing to feed you them occasionally, they might help.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:17 AM on November 30, 2007

Best answer: Practice/ visualize. When I can't get to sleep I hold imagined conversations in my head. The upshot of that is it made me very good at speaking extemporaneously. The other thing is to have a few good lines in your bag to handle common situations or as dead-air filler while you figure out what you're going to say (but have enough so you're not constantly repeating one).
posted by yerfatma at 7:40 AM on November 30, 2007

Especially if your problem is too many ideas jumbling for attention in your head so that nothing comes out, try pretending you are speaking to people for whom English is not their first language. By forcing yourself to focus on making simple sentence construction, the ideas too will get clarified.

Also, although it might seem a little counter-intuitive, sometimes shyness and being tongue-tied is actually the result of vanity - you don't want to say anything unless it's perfect. Have a bit of a think about if this might have any grain of truth for you. If so, take a quick look around - a lot of what people say is not brilliant or perfect and doesn't have to be, and you shouldn't put yourself under that kind of pressure.

Finally, remember if you feel it is important, you can always respond with something like 'Well, what an interesting question. I'd like to consider that for a moment, hmmm...."

Hope this helps
posted by Marzipan at 4:26 AM on December 1, 2007

I hated extemp(oraneous) speeches in high school. I hated maintaining the boxes and boxes of files of pertinent information. I didn't enjoy getting cozy with every magazine in the library and choosing what to photocopy, and where to put it. But now, I am glad for the skills that drudgery gave me. I also sort of wish I hadn't used extemp to fill gaps in my competition schedule. (I stuck with events I was already good at.)

Here's the two tips I have. First, read a lot. I know you talk about discomfort in the area of "even if you picked an issue that I knew cold, had recently written about, and felt very passionate about." So gather information about topics you aren't familiar with. Be the person with the most information.
This involves reading on both sides of the political spectrum. Know as many angles of as many issues as you can get your hands on. In current pop culture I get a giant Fail for this, but in politics and arts I tend to keep up ok.

Next, practice. Find people that you can have conversations with. Long conversations. Because extemporaneous speaking, done well, feels very conversational. You need to be able to make the listerner(s) feel like they are participating. You need to be an engaging speaker, and if you have enough conversations you'll be able to tell when people stop caring about what you say. This is harder to tell if you are just on a podium expounding. Many are very good at faking attention. And when I'm speaking, I get frustrated inside, convincing myself that nobody is listening. Then, I come off the stage and lots of people have specific, well informed questions. And more people have enthusiastic praise.=

All that copying I mentioned above was helpful to me, it forced me to be a more active reader. Now that I'm ten years older I can read articles and think about all the different headings it could go under. And even how arguments could be applied in other places. But what I still really suck at is remembering particular article authors and having a good feel for their style. I knew competitors who could tell you five or six articles that a journalist had turned out on a specific topic within the past several months. It infuriated me.

A caveat for why practice alone isn't sufficient. Some casual extemporaneous speakers are cheaters. They stand up in front of their friends and fake sources and make up statistics that suit their chosen topic. Some of these people won tournaments because judges at the high school level are sometimes parent volunteers and hungover college students. I have an adult friend in real life who is like a faker extemper. He sounds very well informed, but his long talks are often misinformed. Also, he's not engaging. His appearance of vast stores of information intimidates people, so they don't ask for clarification because he makes them feel stupid. He doesn't seem to be aware that he has this effect, and I can't be bothered to point it out to him, because I do respond and call him on his bullshit.

And a bonus suggestion: as manish suggests, record yourself. Less for BS patrol, because you'll know that. But listen for verbal tics that listeners misinterpret. Space fillers like "um" and "uh" are very common and don't actually suggest anything about the speakers grasp on the topic. But if you use a lot of these space fillers your listeners will doubt your authority. Ditto for fidgeting and excessive pacing.
posted by bilabial at 6:21 AM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

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