April 3, 2008

Speaking off the cuff

A Speak Schmeak reader sent me a question about speaking off the cuff that I'm going to address today, expanding on a post from February. Her concern was about speaking effectively in an informal group discussion setting or classroom, rather than giving a presentation where there is time to prepare.

My first response to this question is that you can still be prepared! As I've posted before, TJ Walker says:
"Being able to think on one's feet is highly overrated. It is far better to develop the discipline of preparing in advance and rehearsing. Of course, this is hard work, but if you consistently think about your message and all of the issues surrounding your topic, you will rarely be surprised.

So if you want to appear to be good at thinking on your feet, spend some time thinking at your seat in front of your computer, writing down notes, outlines, bullet points, and sample questions and answers. Then you can make it all look easy." ~ TJ Walker, in his book "Media Training A-Z."

TJ may be referring more to talking points for the media than having a conversation with colleagues, but this concept still applies. You must always expect that you're going to have to speak on your subject, especially in work-related settings where you will regularly be in meetings and discussions.

Always be learning and processing

Keep your mind fresh by continuing to read up on your subject matter and getting new perspectives. Reread your favorite books, papers, periodicals, and your own writing. What are the key points of your message that you can always come back to? I would suggest having three main points that you're always prepared to talk about in every setting -- just in case.

Also, keep in mind the related and expanded issues around your topic. Anticipate the questions that might arise -- and remember the ones that have been asked before.

Take your time

Even in a discussion setting, where the conversation is fast-paced and you're not the center of attention, you can still take a moment to get your thoughts together before you speak.

It's tempting to dive in with your brilliant argument the second it hits you, but this is the time to stop, think and breathe. Believe me, I've been there.

I know you feel the adrenaline rush starting. Your ears are hot, your hands are cold and your heart is pounding. Clench and unclench your hands and feet a few times under the table to get your blood flowing and provide a mini-relaxation response. Take three slow, deep breaths through your nose. You might even jot down a couple of ideas on your notepad or meeting agenda to keep your thoughts focused.

Enter the discussion when you're ready.

But what if they've moved past the point in the discussion where you wanted to make your point? If your point is still relevant, then it's not a problem. Say something like, "I'd like to go back to John's point about there being no reported cases of emphysema in marijuana smokers."

A discussion is a non-linear living thing. Ideas sometimes come to us at inconvenient times and aren't perfectly aligned with the flow of the conversation. But you can always go back to a point and revisit it.

Slow down

Now that you've joined the discussion, you must consciously speak slowly and clearly. It's as important in a discussion as it is in a formal presentation. Listen to your own voice as you speak. Take the time to choose your words carefully.

The key here is awareness and conscious effort. Stay lucid! Don't panic. Make eye contact with your colleagues. And keep breathing -- breathing will keep your voice calm and your heart from exploding.

Make it easy for them to understand

If you have trouble making your point or explaining complex concepts, tell stories and use examples. Use analogies to help the group understand the concepts in the context of their own lives. Again, this is a concept that is as important and relevant in a conversation as it is in a formal presentation.

Don't fear the Q&A

Many people fear being asked questions they can't answer, but we're all human and our brains are not Google. If you don't know the answer or can't quite grab it from the dark recesses at a given moment, it's okay to say so! Offer to get back to the person with answers and resources and don't dwell on your momentary lapse of memory.

Just remember: always be prepared to share your expertise, even in informal settings. Always be prepared to express your key points or message relating to your subject matter. Don't panic if you don't know the answer to a question. And make sure to breathe and do a couple of subtle relaxation activities before opening your mouth.

As TJ says above, being able to think on one's feet is overrated. In fact, people who appear to be thinking on their feet are usually extremely well-prepared, not supernaturally clever.

And a final quote, from Daniel Boulud on last night's Top Chef:
"What I would have wished is that everyone took five minutes to think of a plan and then execute that."

For more tips, check out this article I wrote in November about speaking off the cuff.

What are your tips for handling this kind of speaking situation?

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7 comments. Please add yours! :

Bill Reichart said...

Good post. Too often our speaking and communication comes in extemporaneous venues.

Slowing down is a great tip. A brief pause (1-2 seconds is all it takes) before you speak may give a person enough time to collect thoughts and be more deliberate with their words.

BTW, the most challenging extemporaneous setting that I have ever done was being a guest on a talk radio show. The show was taped and not live (that was one benefit) but nevertheless, there were no second takes - that was very nerve racking.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I hear you, Bill. Radio and TV interviews can be pretty nerve wracking, especially when they're live.

I remember being asked to prepare to talk for three minutes on a TV morning show a few years back. I figured I'd be lucky if I actually got the full three minutes, but it turned out that the interview actually went a few minutes LONGER.

Good thing I knew my stuff inside out because they asked me a few questions I hadn't practiced answering!

Unknown said...

I think an overlooked commodity in the spontaneous setting is by simply asking more questions. It puts the pressure back on the group to think with you. And it covers up the fact that you may not know the answer. Sometimes you can even admit you don't know the answer and still ask a followup question to spur the group towards the answer.

Another option is to simply run out of the room.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Good point, Tony!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Lisa. I have a follow-up question: I struggle to understand what people are saying in discussions about complicated or technical subjects. When I'm nervous, it gets even more difficult for me to process what people are saying. Do you have any tips to focus one's concentration and distract oneself from self-conscious thoughts? I've had some success with letting my jaw go slack and slouching, which of course doesn't sound professional, but it works. Do you have any other suggestions?

Unknown said...

I think that, if slouching and letting your jaw go slack works for you, you should keep doing it. :-)

I mentioned a couple of relaxation activities in the article which also might help.

In order to focus better, it might help you to think about how you learn best when you're NOT nervous.

Are you a doodler? Does it help you to draw or do something physical while you're listening? Do you listen better when you're not looking at the person who's talking?

Or is it better when you can focus on the person's face and see her/him clearly?

Maybe taking notes helps you focus on the ideas being discussed.

Think about the ways you learn best, and try to incorporate these activities even when you're nervous and distracted by your thoughts.

And probably the best advice I can give is to have a sort of code word you say to yourself when you find yourself getting distracted.

When you become aware of the fact that you're thinking about yourself rather than what the speaker is saying, say the word, "stop" or "focus" or another word that can get you back on track.

You must be conscious and aware that your mind is doing this and then you can control it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lisa, that is very helpful!

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