I taught my first English classes at the University of Macau in the fall of 2011. Nearly all my free time in the evenings and weekends was spent creating my curriculum and preparing for those lessons. Since I was a new teacher, I had a lot of anxiety about saying the wrong thing or looking foolish, so I would plan every minute of class. My mentor teacher told me on several occasions that he liked to take a more spontaneous approach to teaching, that “winging it” created a much more engaging experience, but I couldn’t even contemplate such a thing.
Now that I’ve been teaching English for so long, it’s much better. I still prepare, of course, but I know my content well. This makes it much easier to improvise when I’m teaching. I know what examples to use for different grammar points and how long each part of my lesson will take, and that knowledge of my content gives me a lot of flexibility. I’ve also learned that even if I make a mistake, the world doesn’t end. My students don’t quit coming to class. They don’t fail their exams. If I mess up, I just correct myself and keep going. After a few of these embarrassing moments, I was able to relax and enjoy the freedom that comes with not planning every second of my lessons.
If you google “winging it,” you’ll see a lot of articles about how it’s a terrible idea and how it’s always better to prepare for a presentation. I think that’s true to a degree, but sometimes you have no choice. Some days, you’ll sit down in a meeting with your afternoon tea and your manager will walk up and ask you to give the team a quick update about your progress. Yikes! No time to prepare! What do you do?
This is a tough situation for many people, but I want to share some suggestions that can make spontaneous speaking less stressful and more enjoyable for everyone. It is possible, and you can start working on it today!
Turn that frown upside down
When someone asks you to speak unexpectedly, what is your first reaction? Do you panic? Try to find an excuse to say no? Tell them why someone else would be a better choice? Or do you jump at the chance to engage your colleagues?
Many people dislike public speaking, especially when they haven’t had time to prepare, so they have a negative first reaction when they are asked to share their thoughts. They feel threatened, and anxiety comes flooding in. What if instead of anxiety, you got a rush of excitement?
Most people who are great speakers get nervous too, but they know how to master their anxiety instead of feeding it. They stay focused on being present with their audience in the moment instead of worrying about what might go wrong. If you can help your listeners feel comfortable and engaged, and trust your knowledge of the subject, then there’s no need to worry about the outcome.
I encourage you to see these requests as a chance to shine. Embrace them as opportunities to share your ideas, expertise, and passion with others instead of burdens. The person asking you to speak must have a good reason for choosing you, right? So try to accept with enthusiasm and a positive attitude. It will make a good impression on others and will probably give you a better outlook as well.
Use a structure for spontaneous speaking
The reason many people panic when they’re asked to speak “on the fly” is that it’s difficult to think about what you want to say while you’re saying it. This is especially hard for people speaking in a second or third language. Fortunately, there are some simple strategies that will help.
The first one is to listen carefully to the request so you know exactly what you’re being asked to talk about. Once you know what you need to do, think about the main point you want to make. What’s the takeaway for the audience? If possible, try to simplify it to one sentence. (For example, I want my audience to know that using these strategies can help them succeed when they’re winging it.)
Once you have your main point/takeaway, think about how you can support it. This is where using a structure can be very helpful. Memorizing a few structures can give shape to your thoughts quickly, so you don’t have to stall for time or just start rambling.
Here are a few common structures that you can use in different scenarios.
Example: I believe that logo three is the best option for our new product. (Point) It is easily recognizable, and it looks good in color or black and white. (Reason) As you can see in this poster redesign, it fits well with our current branding. (Example) So, I recommend that we go with logo three. (Point)
Problem or Opportunity/Solution/Benefit
Example: Because of cutbacks in staff, we’ll need to simplify our design. (Problem) I think if we combine these two elements, (Solution) we can save time for the engineers and roll out our design on schedule. (Benefit)
What?/So what?/Now what?
This one is good for sharing progress: What is the issue being discussed? Why should the audience care about this issue? What’s the next step?
Example: This mobile design update (What?) will make it easier for our users to engage with the app. (So what?) The next step is to finalize the copy and then get sign-off. (Now what?)
It can also be used for giving feedback:
Example: In my opinion, the new design is not ideal (What?) because it could cause problems for some edge-case users. (So what?) I suggest that we do more user testing to find a better solution. (Now what?)
Believe in your abilities
Perhaps the most important part of “winging it” is believing that you can. When your anxiety starts to creep in, just remember that someone has asked you to speak. That must mean he or she believes you can do a good job, right? You need to believe it too!
Even if you aren’t the most dynamic speaker or English isn’t your first language, you should remember that you have great ideas and thoughtful opinions that can benefit your team. You have just as much of a right to speak as anyone else, and if you’re sharing an idea or opinion, there’s no wrong answer! Some people might not agree with you, but that’s ok! Sharing your thoughts clearly and with confidence is an achievable goal – even when you don’t have time to prepare.
Here’s how to do it. Take a couple of deep breaths to collect your thoughts while you choose your main point, the takeaway, and the structure. Once you begin speaking, make it engaging and conversational by using questions to draw in your audience. Smiling helps too! Never apologize for your speaking ability. Just do your best and if you stumble, keep going. Stick to your structure, and let your audience ask questions if they want more details. The only way to get better is to practice, and I think you’ll be surprised by how much these simple strategies can help.
So the next time someone asks you to speak unexpectedly, try smiling and saying “I’d be happy to!” See what a difference it makes!
Speaking up takes courage, so I’m here to support creatives in their journey. If you have questions about this post or are interested in working with a coach, send me an email. If you’d like to read more tips like these, you can sign up for my newsletter and get a free email series about how to tell your portfolio story.