by Patience Griswold, US Government and Public Speaking
This year, the Logic and Rhetoric students at Veritas are practicing giving impromptu speeches in front of their peers every week. In a traditional competitive or academic speech setting, an impromptu speaker is given the topic for their speech two minutes before presenting. Speakers are then expected to give a speech that is roughly five minutes in length. This is partially for the sake of developing their ability to speak in front of people at a moment’s notice, but it is also much more than that. Impromptu speaking is about learning to quickly organize one’s thoughts and present a defensible position, thus equipping students with important life skills. My goal for my students as they practice impromptu speaking is that they will grow in the following areas.
Decision Making and Organization
A lot of decision making happens when preparing an impromptu speech. Say the topic you are given is “ruler.” Ruler is a word that can take more than one meaning. It can refer to a measuring stick, or the sovereign of a nation. Which one will you focus on in your speech? Once you’ve decided how you’re going to use the word, you have to come up with two or three points about that word. You can talk about what makes a good ruler, different kinds of rulers, or what you would do if you were a ruler. As you choose your points, you’ll have decide how to narrow down your topic because more isn’t always better. Next you have to decide how you want to illustrate those points—are there stories you can use? Maybe rulers you’ve studied? Do you have an interesting introduction? Finally, you have to decide how to organize your ideas by identifying how they relate to one another. An impromptu speech has to be more than just an unrelated string of stories—the stories must center a unifying theme in a way that grows the audience’s understanding of the assigned topic.
The Ability to Present Ideas Engagingly
Impromptu speeches often rely heavily on stories and illustrations. This is due in part to the nature of impromptu speaking. A good speaker knows his material. With very little prep time, an impromptu speaker is unlikely to be an expert on his topic, but he can (and should) know his illustrations well and be able to relate them to his topic in a way that enlightens and entertains his audience. Learning to present ideas engagingly not only gives the speaker a competitive edge, but it also equips him with a life skill that can be used in other areas of life.
Learning to Think Before Speaking
Real life doesn’t come with prep time, at least, not in neatly organized two-minute increments. So how is impromptu a useful life skill? Practicing impromptu speaking with prep time and time limits trains students to think before they speak and carefully weigh their words while presenting. When your words matter, either for the sake of your grades or for competition, and you have very little time to plan them, choosing your words carefully and thinking well before you speak become very important. For many students, the somewhat daunting prospect of giving a speech in front of their peers with very little time to prepare pushes them to realize the importance of choosing their words wisely. This is a realization that students (ideally) carry with them out of the classroom. Outside of the Abraham Lincoln Conference Room, their words may not affect their grades, but the realization that words have weight may affect the rest of their lives.