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Survival Tips For A Last Minute Speech

Posted on November 8, 2012 by Leslie Dickson

Updated: March 11th, 2019

It happens… we hear it from a number of our clients.  You walk into a meeting (business, service club, community), and one of the organizers asks, “I know this is short notice, but could you say a few words about the project or the plan or the new product?

Even someone who’s a regular public speaker will feel the heart skip a little beat. And the rest of us?  A wave of panic may ensue. It doesn’t have to.

Here’s an emergency checklist of pointers to help you not only survive the extemporaneous experience but make the most of the opportunity to share ideas and shape opinions.

1. Remember, you’re the expert.

That’s why you were asked to say a few words.  Breathe, settle your mind, and focus on the information you know. You were asked because you know more about the topic than everyone else in that room. Give yourself that reminder and fill the expert role.

2. What’s the most important takeaway?

You’ll only have a few minutes with your audience, so make them count by focusing attention on the single most important idea. Save the details for another time.  If you’re having trouble separating the wheat from the chaff of your information, jot down a few possible key phrases.  Imagine people will walk out of the room repeating one of them.  That process can help clarify your thinking.

3. Make a quick outline of your message.

You want just a few bullet points – and the most important ones.  You can’t pack a 3-page memo into 2 minutes.  Ask yourself: what’s the best evidence, strongest story, most important background to support the message?  Now organize the 3 or 4 points into a logical order.

4. Write it down, it’ll give you confidence.

Just note the main message and bullet points. You need no more than would fit on a 3×5 index card…or a cocktail napkin.  Don’t read from it, don’t memorize it.  Use it simply as a mental checklist of your message.  It also serves as a confidence builder.  The fear of “brain freeze” is actually one of the major causes of it. Your outline serves as a safety net.

What do you want people to do?

Embrace a new program?  Watch for a memo?  Volunteer?  Talk to customers?   If there’s a call to action, make it clear.

Finish where you started.  A final restating of your main message helps reinforce it.

5. Channel your nerves into energy.

Stand strong, but relaxed.  Speak your first sentence with confidence and you’re on your way.  Remember that the visual you present and the sound of your voice communicate as much as the words you speak.  Keep in mind, too, that your nervousness about your speech can come across as nervousness about the project or program you’re discussing. Don’t let that happen.

It’s ok to ask for questions.

That can be an excellent way to be sure nothing was missed because of your abbreviated prep time.  You can also offer to answer questions after the meeting.

What if I mess up?

You will sometimes.  Everybody does, and, by the way, that’s why audiences understand.  Take comfort in that fact.  Simply correct a misstep, bring it back to the topic, and, as the Brits say, “Remain calm and carry on.”

With this simple step-by-step approach, there’s no reason to fear the extemporaneous speech.  In fact, with a little practice, you may start looking for opportunities to be a last-minute agenda addition when you have an important message to share.

Let’s talk more about programs that can help you be a stronger communicator – whether it’s with an audience of 500, your work team, or one on one.

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