Impromptu strikes fear into the heart of almost every speech and debate competitor when they begin their speech journey. I remember being handed a slip of paper with the word “joy” on it one day in speech club when I was twelve years old. After two minutes of preparation time, I stood in front of my peers and mumbled about how joy was different than happiness for approximately thirty seconds. Sound familiar?
Impromptu speeches are supposed to be five minutes long. They’re supposed to have a thesis, analysis, and a variety of examples. For the novice speaker, delivering cohesive and engaging impromptu speeches can seem impossible. Unfortunately, many students stumble their way through tournament after tournament without ever feeling comfortable with impromptu. Others find a lifeline in three canned examples that they stretch and adapt for every round. Some avoid impromptu like the plague… and then there are the competitors who are disturbingly passionate about impromptu. I’m one of those people. Impromptu doesn’t have to be scary, and it shouldn’t be twisted versions of the same speech. It’s not the event to participate in “just because.” It can be a dynamic, intentional, and enjoyable experience with powerful results. I competed in impromptu for four years, and I made it to finals in impromptu at the National Championship 3 years in a row! My consistent success in impromptu wasn’t an accident, but rather the result of focused practice. When I look back at the years I competed, I see the incredible benefits of impromptu – benefits that help me share my passions and faith on a daily basis! This discussion is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it gets you started or reenergized.
Part 1- “Mind Map” – Categorizing Your Knowledge Base for Optimal Extraction
Our brains are crammed full of song lyrics, odd knowledge, plans for next weekend, notes from a class, memories, etc. It’s likely that you have knowledge related to any impromptu topic you might draw stored within your brain. But it is a “truth universally acknowledged” that our brains like to freeze during impromptu prep time. My thoughts have often run at top speed as if they were racing towards the perfect example, only to arrive in the middle of outer space with an odd assortment of unrelated facts. You need to maximize your prep time by categorizing your knowledge base. You need to create a mind map. Your mind map will be continually refined and expanded as you compete. I regularly discarded examples as my breadth of knowledge grew.
I think you’ll find it helpful to begin with a blank sheet of paper. Separate it into four sections and create lists under the following headings: Biblical, Historical, Literature, and Personal. Fill in the sections with your favorite books, historical figures, individuals from Scripture, and personal stories. Make sure you add selections that you’ve either spent significant time studying or remember vividly. I’d recommend placing no more than 5-7 examples in each section. My literature list might look something like this: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, The Hidden Hand by E.D.E.N. Southworth, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I know these stories inside and out and never tire of them. Depending on your age, you may be familiar with fewer historical figures and books, but don’t worry! Your knowledge base is perpetually growing. Impromptu is all about a journey towards confidence and competence.
When you finish this small exercise, you’ll find yourself with at least 20 unique examples, perhaps as many as 30. I’m definitely not advocating that you confine the content of your speeches to these examples. As you grow comfortable with impromptu, you’ll recall new examples during prep time that fit the topics beautifully. This list is your starting point and guide. It’s a tried and true method that will allow you to relax the panic of “what if I don’t have anything to talk about.” If you have a photographic memory that will retain an image of the lists, you’re in even better shape.
Consider your work thus far as drawing a map. I’m sure you know that a key is absolutely essential to understanding a map, and the same is true for your new impromptu mind map. On separate sheets of paper (or notecards), write down 10-15 key terms. Key terms could include love, fear, hope, courage, and work. For the purpose of example, and because I believe wholeheartedly in the work of Lasting Impact, I’d like to focus on the key term “impact.” Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet demonstrate the impact of first impressions and relationships. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego show us the impact of standing up for your faith. My journey in speech and debate taught me the impact of pride and character. The gospel of Jesus Christ has the greatest impact in the world, that of eternal life! The purpose of this exercise is not to plan a speech on the word impact, but rather to practice connecting vignettes from my example list with a broad term. Synonyms of impact include influence, outcome, and result. Related quotes might discuss making a difference or human interaction. You will be amazed at how quickly a set of key terms can branch out into webs connecting the most common ideas we discuss. When I first began competing in impromptu, I used key terms as starting points during prep time. The lists I had brainstormed ahead of time allowed me to link my topic to the big ideas behind it and quickly find related examples. Sometimes the examples I landed on would fit wonderfully, but it was more common for this process to jog my memory of other stories!
APPLICATION- Categorizing your knowledge base is an effective first strategy for any impromptu speaker. Feel free to add a creative touch to your new impromptu notebook/notecards with stickers or color coding. Make it yours, and embrace the beginning of this journey towards overcoming one of the most intimidating events in the world of speech. Start today on this journey of mind mapping with an impromptu notebook. I think you will surprise yourself with what is within yourself already!
Kaitlyn competed in the speech and debate for six years in all of the Limited Prep and Platform events. Highlights of her career included ten top-10 finishes at the NCFCA National Championship, including a win in Apologetics in 2016 and Biographical Narrative in 2017. She was delighted to receive the title of 2017 National Sweepstakes Champion. Kaitlyn will be pursuing a double major in Piano Performance and Communications at Grove City College this fall. She hopes to continue speaking competitively and pursue her passion for the art of communication through coaching. She loves to help students craft their Platform speeches with beautiful rhetoric and polish their Limited Prep delivery through a range of persuasion techniques. Kaitlyn is one of our Lasting Impact! coaches, scheduling coaching sessions now!
photo by: Hannah Seymour