How to Approach Impromptu by Annie Rogers

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My stomach churned anxiously as I waited outside of my finals room for impromptu room. My sophomore year in highschool was halfway through, and I had determined to place in the top 3 in Impromptu that year. Having already won the North Carolina National Qualifier, my spot to Nationals was secured, but, out of both ambition and pride, I wanted to keep my streak going. The creaking of the door distracted my from my pacing as the previous speaker walked out, and the timer beckoned me in. I took a deep breath, strode confidently into the room, and gave what I perceived to be an eloquent, concise impromptu speech. I did not place anywhere close to first, however; and as I read my finals ballots, one of my judges had offered one of the most helpful critiques I had ever heard…

As I read my ballot, the judges words still ring true for me today, “everyone talks about the underdog, about perseverance, or about “overcoming the odds”. Think outside of the box.”

Five years later, as a junior in college, her remarks echo through nearly all of the critiques and comments I give my impromptu students. Through those helpful remarks, as well as a lot of humility, I learned that the best way to approach impromptu is to think about how most students would give a speech on your chosen topic, and then try to go three steps further. Specifically, think through your thesis, your content, and your motives, and push yourself get outside of the “canned speeches”.

When you walk into the room to deliver your impromptu speech, your goal should not be to talk about two or three examples that relate to your topic, to rant passionately about contentious issues, or to try to get the judges to cry. Your goal, as you progress, should be to give a holistic commentary on your chosen topic, throughout which you can clearly guide the judge through distinct points that all point to a common thesis or theme. The best students can frame all of these facets of impromptu as one coherent, persuasive story. However, if you’re still figuring out impromptu, attempting to get all of your proverbial ducks in a row can be intimidating. Instead, start out by trying to come up with a theme, or thesis, that describes, proves, or elaborates on your topic. The best way to generate themes for your speech is to ask yourself questions during prep time to jumpstart your brain. For instance, if you were to draw the topic “wisdom”, start out by asking yourself three things: “what does wisdom mean?”, “what does it look like?”, and “how have I seen it played out in real life, in both good and bad ways?”. The answers to these questions can help you decide how you want to frame the speech, and thus what is most important to convey to the judges.

Next, try to think of two or three ways to prove or elaborate on your thesis. For instance, if your thesis is something along the lines of “wisdom is the beginning of a just and holy life”, consider making your two points about the connection between wisdom and justice, and wisdom and holiness. Focusing on improving your structure first will give you a solid foundation–the more confident you are in your ability to be concise and clear, the more wiggle room you have for adding unique twists on content and structure.

A clear and simple structure will automatically resonate well with your judges. Typically, the roadmap you give us is one of our first impressions of you. If your roadmap is sloppy and obscure, the judges will expect a sloppy and obscure speech, and will spend the rest of that five minutes trying to decipher your words. However, if your roadmap is clear and tells the judge exactly where you plan to take them, the guesswork is done for them. Don’t worry about coming up with mind-bending examples, or a clincher that is sure to get their tear ducts in overdrive. Stick to developing clear structures upon which you can build creative, winsome, and inspiring content.

Finally, approach impromptu with a posture of humility and pure intent. While the need for humility seems self-explanatory, your attitude in approaching your speech will seep through and influence how the judges perceive your words. Seek to learn and grow from formulating this speech, and view your five minutes as a space to have a professional but genuine conversation with your judges. This is where pure intent comes in. Students can cite Bible verses, share uplifting stories, and push the judges to pursue justice in their communities, but if they do those things simply to manipulate the judges into giving them first, they are no longer giving a genuine speech. Judges can absolutely tell when a student is milking and manipulating emotions for all its worth, and we will call them out for it. Simply put, check your pride at the door, and always check your intentions before sharing a particularly emotional story. Are you sharing it because it’s made your judges cry in the past, or because it truly relates to your speech? Sometimes, the line isn’t so clear, but don’t worry–I’ve never ranked a student first based on the amount of tears I’ve shed during their speech. Ultimately, seek to be humble, clear, and genuine when you approach every impromptu speech, and you will grow leaps and bounds in your ability to think and communicate on your feet.

Do you want to grow deeper in your skills of Impromptu Speaking? Join Annie, meet new friends from around the country, and enhance your speaking skills with this Online Club/Class. Click HERE to sign up. Class size will be limited.