Excelling at Impromptu: An Advanced Guide

Impromptu is an event where the title fully captures the mood of the competition. In mere minutes ideas are organized, processed, and a speech delivered. The preparation for impromptu is also swift. Due to the nature of the event, the Impromptu Speaker has little preparation per say. They do not have to analyze a piece of literature. They do not have to write a multi-paragraph speech to be performed every week. Nor do they memorize lines. Files for citation are not even required! This is the event for those who like to be the cowboy of the speech world. But wait. There is practice to be had and event protocol to understand. This event takes a certain type of person and a certain level of intrinsic motivation to excel. Impromptu speakers rely on their wits and nothing else. And that takes courage, dedication, and talent.

To begin, an Impromptu speaker needs to understand the rules of the particular division they are located in. The National Forensics League has a list of standard regulations and individual state run tournaments have their own interpretation of Impromptu as well. The variations involve the way topics are chosen/given out, how much prep time is allowed, and how long a speech can be. Some areas give the speaker a slip of paper with three choices, and the speaker chooses one. Other areas give the topic choices to the speaker in an envelope. Some areas only allow quotations as topics. Also, some areas give three keys words that need to be addressed during the speech (triad format). Further, with prep time, certain regions will allow the speaker a total of eight minutes to prep and deliver a speech (ideally, two of those minutes are spent on prep). While other places ask for a five minute speech and give half a minute prep. Bottom-line? Ask your coach which rules your division follows.

Next, you are going to want to know the language of Impromptu. You would not travel to Japan ignorant of their language and culture, so why enter an Impromptu round as an oblivious foreigner? This is a timed event and judges want you to be conscious of that. Judges are Time Lords with their stopwatches and preside over the round delivering hand signals to signify time. For instance, a finger raised above the head equals a minute. Two fingers is equivalent to two minutes and so on. A clenched fist means 30 seconds remain. A hand raised that has fingers “dropping” from five to none signifies 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0 seconds. And when a hand is circling above the head as a vulture…you better wrap things up. Knowing the signals for time not only keeps you from looking confused when the judge is attempting to talk to you using a language you do not grasp, but it also lets you manage your time better and helps keep you from loosing points for going over.

Outlines, if your division allows them, are your lifeline. During your preparation time, you will be allowed to write an outline of your speech on an index card. Be precise and to the point with your outline. Keep each “paragraph” on your card to a word or two. If you need to write a few notes under each point, do so but keep it brief. You want to be able to write your directions to get to the final destination in your speech in a clear, easy to follow method. Writing too much or being unorganized can cause you to lose control and stall in your performance.

Being aware what types of topics circulate in Impromptu is beneficial so you can prepare for that topic. No, you most likely will not get an issue you practiced three days ago, but if being versed in traditional topics will help you when improvising a speech during an actual round. You will have an idea of what to say and then you expand. Topics include phrases, quotations, abstract words…on subjects ranging from pop-culture to topical. Improvisational performers build trust with their fellow players and build a revenue of material to use as a base. So should you to give off that polished, yet I-made-this-up-NOW feeling.

Practice can not be emphasized enough. The concept of having no script to interpret is precisely why you need to practice and become confident in YOU. YOU are the only tool in Impromptu. So get your coach and have a mock round. Treat practice exactly as if you were competing. Follow all formalities and then at the end review what could have been better and what worked. Try to strategize for the upcoming tournament. The more you practice, the better you will become.

Because you are doing an event that can draw abstract and broad topics, try to keep current with events happening around you. Also, prepare yourself to form an opinion on random, sometimes obscure statements—so know yourself. The more you know about something or how you feel, the easier it is for you to talk about it. You’ll have more to say and you’ll come off as confident. Plus, it will keep your stress down if you get a topic and be able to go with it.

This is a speaking event; therefore how you speak is critical. Pay attention to diction! Words should flow from your mouth. Hold yourself with a powerful stance and take control of the room. Make sure to make eye contact to ALL in the room. Express feeling in your face; do not pretend you’re The Mask, but if you make a joke it is okay to smile. Promise. When you move, each movement is to be deliberate. Walk to a new area as a transition/emphasis. Refrain from twitchy hand gestures and repetitive ones too. Do not bounce or sway from side to side! Present yourself as the president of that room. Own it!

Finally, be creative and realize you are going to be funny, fluid, and semi-factual (no blatant lies, but you will be stretching what you know and selling it). You are a salesman in this event, and if you look for an instant you have no clue what you are speaking about, you will lose your audience. This is a personality trait you either have or do not. You can always improve your poise by developing your speaking skills, but throwing a sales pitch is something you are either comfortable with or not.

Paying attention to these details will help you excel in Impromptu. The further you pursue the event, the more you will learn for sure. However, knowing these steps in the Impromptu game plan will set you up for doing well in the event.