May 1, 2023

From Nervous to Natural: 7 Practical Tips to Master the Art of Impromptu Speaking

Learn how to speak off the cuff using impromptu speaking and reduce presentation anxiety with these 7 pragmatic tips.

Picture of By Stuart Paap

By Stuart Paap

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Your colleague called in sick and suddenly you’re put on the spot to speak at today’s meeting. 

Or, you come into work and the senior leadership team is requesting you provide an unexpected update during the board meeting in the afternoon 

Do you break into a nervous sweat? Can you feel your heart rate go up? 

If so, you aren’t alone. 

But here’s the thing: impromptu speaking happens much more often than planned presentations, especially if you’re rising through the ranks in leadership

The good news is that Matt Abrahams, lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, has new and proven strategies for controlling anxiety and speaking “off the cuff” with more confidence. 

We recently sat down with Matt to learn more about:

  • Tools for speaking on your feet
  • Techniques for anxiety management before speaking 
  • Tips for answering unexpected questions 

If you find yourself getting nervous even thinking about impromptu speaking, then this article is for you. 

Here’s the top 7 powerfully pragmatic tips we learned from Matt to present and speak on the spot with less anxiety.

1. Start with a go-to structure for spontaneous speaking

When it comes to being put on the spot to speak, Matt is a firm believer of having a go-to structure

Being put on the spot can make even the most confident person feel like a deer caught in headlights. 

When you’re unexpectedly called on to speak, Matt shares that your brain is being tasked with figuring out:

  • What to say
  • How to say it

But, in moments of spontaneity, when you have a go-to structure you have an easy way to quickly map-out what you’re going to say. 

So what is Matt’s go-to structure? 

His preferred recipe for impromptu speaking is to answer the questions:

  1. What?
  2. So, what?
  3. Now what?

To see how Matt uses this structure in action, tune into the podcast episode: Confidently Off the Cuff – Mastering Impromptu Speaking where he demonstrates its application. It’s a game-changer.

2. Reframe your feelings around communication as something positive

Matt highlights that “85% of Americans report moderate to extreme anxiety when speaking publicly.” 

Public speaking anxiety is a phenomenon that plagues even the most seasoned speakers. 

Yet, his colleague and friend Allison Wood Brooks, Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, highlights in her research that the physiological response when we speak is similar to the response we have when we’re excited. 

Now when it comes to speaking anxiety, most people might believe that finding ways to calm down, or cope with anxious feelings is the best way to manage presentation nerves. 

But here’s the kicker: Matt shares that one of the most effective ways of managing speaking anxiety is reframing public speaking as an exciting opportunity, rather than a fearful one. 

When you shift your mindset to view presenting as a chance to share your passions, ideas and perspectives with others, suddenly it becomes a thrilling experience vs. one to be feared. 

A positive mindset not only helps with the experience of uncomfortable anxiety symptoms, it also sets the intention to feel and build confidence.

3. Manage symptoms of presentation anxiety with deep exhales

If you’re starting to sweat and are feeling overcome with symptoms of presentation anxiety, Matt’s “rule of lung” is to take a few minutes to do deep breathing with a focus on making sure your exhale is twice as long as your inhale. 

He prescribes two or three deep breaths with long exhalations to bring down the fight or flight response. 

Deep exhales are just one part of Matt’s anxiety management plan. He recommends having three to five techniques in your pocket that you can turn to when you have a speaking situation coming up that you aren’t fond of. 

Some of Matt’s other go-to anxiety busters include:

  • Holding something cold in the palms of your hand
  • Saying tongue twisters 
  • Remembering that people have chosen you to speak – they want you there!
  • Reminding yourself you have value to bring
Matt Abrahams wearing a blue collar shirt lecturing in front of windows

4. Worry less about the amount of “filler” words you use

If you’ve ever taken a public speaking class, you’ve likely been told to cut out “filler” words like “um” and “uh.” 

But Matt challenges traditional thinking around these filler words he calls “verbal graffiti.” 

Rather than viewing them as a blemish on eloquent speaking, he argues that they’re actually natural and necessary parts of speech. They demonstrate what we’re thinking and can even serve as a signal that something important is about to be said. 

Of course, we want to minimize their usage and avoid derailing our message, but his takeaway message is to not get too hung up on them. 

If you are concerned about your own use of filler words, Matt recommends using an app like Say It Like So to build more awareness around how often you “hem and haw” while speaking. 

But at the end of the day, the key is to speak naturally and let your message shine through.

5. Handle tough questions with paraphrasing

The dreaded Q&A. It’s a part of presenting where even the most skilled speakers can start to feel like they’re in the hot seat. 

So when it comes to handling tough questions on the fly, Matt’s pro tip is to paraphrase

Paraphrasing both gives you time to better understand the question that was asked and extra time to come up with your response. 

But, beware – this isn’t just about repeating back what was just asked. Matt explains that thoughtful paraphrasing can be used to distill down the key essence of what’s being asked all while validating the person who asked the question. 

Because paraphrasing is a lower order cognitive skill, your brain is still able to think about and plan your answer at the same time. 

But what happens when you don’t know the answer to a tough question? 

Remember, this happens to the best of us. 

Matt urges you to be transparent and say that you don’t know the answer, but to share what you’re going to do to find out.

6. Dare to be dull: Improve Spontaneous Communication with Improv


For those “type-As” reading this, your jaw might drop at the idea of striving for mediocrity, but this is exactly what Matt tells his Stanford Graduate School of Business students. 

Dare to be dull is a famous maxim in improv. Matt shares that, “it’s a reminder that when we put pressure on ourselves to be great, we minimize the amount of cognitive effort and energy that we have to put into the task.”

He continues by saying that it’s when we strive for mediocrity that we can truly achieve greatness. 

When it comes to speaking, many of us think we need to get it perfect. But the pursuit of perfection can consume our cognitive energy and impair our ability to communicate effectively. Instead, we should focus on being present and getting the job done. 

Matt reminds us that while there are better ways and worse ways to communicate, there is no right way, and it’s better to just focus on being present and getting it done.

7. Set the expectation for engagement

Sometimes there’s nothing worse than leading a meeting or speaking in front of an audience only to be met with silence or worse yet – faces in phones. 

Matt recommends setting the tone and expectation for engagement right out of the gate. 

His top tips are to:

  • State that you’re excited to meet with everyone 
  • Outline the value people will take from the call or conversation 
  • Use a quick poll to establish two-way communication

It’s through preparing people by expectation setting in advance that you’ll have a higher chance of getting them involved. 

Then, use these 6 tips to present with power, even through the screen.

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