Fast Talking for Fast-Trackers and Entrepreneurs: A Primer

What’s the one thing people fear even more than public speaking?

Before the answer, a little background: A commonly cited statistic holds that when surveyed, more people say they fear public speaking than say they fear death. So, the saying goes, next time you’re at a funeral, look around. There are probably more people afraid of being up at the podium, than fear the box or the urn.

Worse? How Could it Possibly Get Any Worse?

So what could be scarier than public speaking?

Impromptu speaking, otherwise known as “off-the-cuff” talks.

Impromptu speaking is the hardest type of business communications.Even worse, impromptu speaking situations—and extemporaneous opportunities, where you have a few minutes to a few hours to put something together—outnumber pre-written, well-rehearsed presentations by, oh, a factor of ten or even 100 in most people’s lives.

Ever Struggled With Questions Like These?

What’s the status on the Blatherpuss report? How’s the Smith project going? Why should you be considered for this deal? What do you think of what Jones here just proposed? What’s your elevator pitch? These are all impromptu or extemporaneous situations that affect people’s opportunities every day.

How to Excel at the Unexpected

I’m one of those freaks of nature that loves the rush of adrenaline when I’m asked to speak on little or no notice. But at Toastmasters and at many of the places I’ve worked, I’ve coached hundreds who absolutely hated off-the-cuff speeches. Almost all of them have improved, and most say they’re now at least “comfortable enough” when they have to speak. Some have discovered they even like these “talk-fast” situations, now that they know how to handle themselves.

Practice Things That Are Important to YOU

Outside of speech contests, it’s rare that topics truly come out of the blue. Practice on what’s important to you—and what comes up most often in your life. The best impromptu speakers often have 10-20 general topics and points they’ve thought through in advance, at least enough to give a clear-and-convincing one-minute spiel on it.

For you, it might be the status of a long-term project, the latest home-team prospects for the playoff, your company’s “elevator pitch,” how your family’s doing (for family gatherings) or a quick overview of your company’s flagship product.

And the funny thing is, once you have a repertoire of these “pre-thunk” modules in your mind, handling the curve balls gets easier. Often, you can take a question and steer it around to one of these, relating it to the question at hand. While you’re doing that, you’ll probably find that you have enough brainpower left over to think while you’re talking, and can customize the parts that you haven’t already covered.

The FASTPIG Is Your Friend: 4 Steps to Success

I’ve competed in impromptu and extemporaneous and gone to national contests in each. Here’s a good way to deal with any impromptu or extemporaneous situation, and it abbreviates to “FASTPIG.”

When you get a topic or a question that requires nearly instant response, follow these steps—quickly:

  • FA—Free-Associate—Think of similar words and subjects, opposite words and topics, and any stories or jokes related to those words.
  • STStall—You can usually buy a little bit of time with either a question of clarification such as “From a financial perspective or from a project management perspective?,” or “Remind me of when I gave you the last update, so I can give you just the most recent news.” Or if it’s a more formal situation, we often say things in Toastmasters like, “That’s a fascinating question, Madame Table Topics Master, there are so many examples that come to mind. Is the question about MY favorite family vacation, or my family’s favorite vacation?”
  • ST—Strategize—ST also stands for “strategize.” You’ve probably bought yourself anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute by stalling. Use that time to keep thinking of what your audience probably doesn’t know about this topic, and what’s the one thing they need to know or do now. If it’s a more abstract topic, you might do a pro/con speech, a chronological speech, or examine the topic from the perspective of several different people (beginners vs. experts, engineers vs. marketing, how we view something vs. how our customers do), or several different ways of analyzing it (first glance vs. deeper analysis, how marketing views the topic vs. accounting, or maybe from a political, moral and financial viewpoint).
  • PI—PIck one strategy and Go.There’s a limit to how long your audience’s patience will hold out. Pick one strategy and idea and go with it. Don’t waste precious brain cycles worrying whether you picked the right one. Just talk.

fastpig-300x240 (1)Ride That FASTPIG!

You can ride this FASTPIG almost anywhere, anytime. It helps if you practice doing this just a few times per week. In Toastmasters, you can practice with an audience—we play little impromptu games called Table Topics—but you can also practice alone if that’s easier.

Open up a newspaper and decide you’ll talk about the first headline you see. Open up a book of quotes (Bartlett’s or any similar collection will do) and randomly put your finger somewhere and force yourself to give a little “mirror talk.” Or if you’re alone in your car, decide you’ll talk about the first song or topic you hear on the radio.

A little bit of practice goes a long way. Just doing a few of these every week can really keep you in peak form. It’s kind of like taking a quick walk every day so you’ll be in shape for activities with your kid or your friends—you’ll be better prepared for a variety of business communications situations.

Run with the FASTPIG, and pretty soon, you’ll feel more comfortable with offhand questions. And someday, you might even find you like them.


Lisa Stapleton


Lisa Stapleton is a marketing manager at 8x8. She holds an MBA from Santa Clara University, an MA in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and a bachelor's degree in applied math and physics from UC Berkeley. [...] Read More >

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