Stand and Command: Nailing the Impromptu Speech

I was driving to a party the other day, when I got a phone call with the dreaded last-minute request…

“I was thinking someone should make a toast this evening. Will you do it?”

As a coach and long-time marketing executive, I’ve done a lot of public speaking in my career. Professionally, I have no problem presenting to crowds, large or small.

So why do impromptu addresses… toasts, birthday party speeches, eulogies, etc. seem so much more intimidating?

Here’s why I struggle with these requests.

1. They’re more personal. The stakes seem higher – and the objectives, less clear.

2. You rarely get time to prepare. It’d be nice if people called a week in advance to ask if you’d do a toast. But how often does that happen?

3. There are no visuals to share the spotlight. Bringing up written notes (or worse, index cards) for a personal toast looks (and feels!) like amateur hour.

Many of my friends and family members are introverted, so I get more than my share of requests for spontaneous remarks.

Here’s what I’ve found works in these situations.

Don’t write down your speech.

This may seem counterintuitive, but written remarks sound… well, written. Most of us don’t speak the way that we write.

Instead, craft your remarks… orally.

Practice saying them. Out loud. In your car. To the cat. While walking around the block. Or, at the very least, in your head.

Stick to anecdotes.

Think of one or two anecdotes that sum up why this person is special – or warrants acknowledgement. Anecdotes are easy to follow – and easier to remember than a list of random accolades. Funny or touching anecdotes are sure-fire winners. It doesn’t matter if you tell the story perfectly. Everyone loves a good anecdote.

Nail the beginning… and the end.

You’ll be most nervous when you first stand up to make a speech. All eyes will be on you and you don’t want to be fumbling for words at that point. Make your first sentence memorable and unexpected – and then memorize that opening line until you can deliver it in your sleep.

The same goes for the final sentence or two. The best speeches end on a polished note. Don’t peter out. Be sure to nail the dismount with a strong call to action… or a heartfelt thank-you.

Live with the silence for a beat or two.

Don’t race into your speech the minute the room quiets down. Give people a second or two to settle and mentally prepare to listen. You’ll create a sense of anticipation if you make people wait before you start speaking. Trust me, this two seconds will feel longer for you than it will for them.

Pause, smile and then hit them with something unexpected… and you’ll be off to a great start.

Cheers – and remember that practice makes perfect. With any luck, the wine won’t be the only thing sparkling the next time you take centre stage!

Making a toast