Thinking on One’s Feet

This is the ultimate question for Impromptu competitors: “Do I know how to think on my feet?” This is the toughest, yet most necessary, skill that any competitor will ever have to learn. Even after years of practice, the sheer pressure can bring out the worst in competitors and make even the best look like novices. But there are many ways to prevent late season meltdowns. Although practice is a given, there are three things to master before focusing on quick thinking.

Know the Topic

This is one of the fundamental preps for speaking, yet so many competitors overlook this. If a league allows for competitors to select their topic, do not chose a challenging one for the sake of doing something unique. Unique is one thing, but if the topic is not fully understood, then uniqueness does not matter. Understanding the topic will take away a great deal of stress and allow for better development of the speech’s details. This feeling of security from knowing the topic adds a level of authority and confidence, which helps contribute to a well-delivered speech.

Memorize the Thesis

This is the most crucial part of Impromptu. As approaching the room to speak, an Impromptu speaker must know their thesis. This is important for three reasons. First, a poor thesis will result with being marked down due to a lack of focus. The judge should never wonder what the speech is about. Secondly, if the thesis is memorized all efforts can be concentrated on thinking through details that add extra flare and depth to the topic. This is important because the details alone will give enough to think about. If a competitor is confused concerning their own organization, then their speech will probably fall flat and be muddled. Third, an unfocused thesis usually causes disorganization in the speech delivery and a floundering to remember points while speaking. How can a speaker recall main points (found in the thesis) if they cannot state the thesis solidly? Further, if a speaker is confused with their own speech’s organization, how could an audience be expected to follow?

Determine How to Conclude

This is the last thing to do while prepping in order to leave time for developing details. A solid conclusion is needed to end a good speech. It is best to figure out the key components of the conclusion before even entering the room to speak; the more prepared going in, the more time there will be to think in the round. Fortunately, the conclusion will mainly be comprised of a restated thesis (in new words of course) so there is less to memorize.

Once these three things have been practiced and memorized, a speaker is now ready to focus on the art of thinking on their feet. The reason these initial steps are in place is that they provide the confidence to divert attention during the speech. This concept is complex, but with training it will become more obvious.

When the topic and thesis is well-understood, it allows the speaker to, in essence, “zone out”. For example, if the topic is about the decline of morality, it could be mentioned (as the thesis) and then “forget” while piecing together the details of a story or example. Essentially, prep lets a competitor create a plan and then the round is used for the execution and expansion of said plan. The key points are known from prep. It is the blanks that are filled in to get from Point A to Point B while speaking. Because there are only five minutes to prep, a speaker must hone their thinking skills and their ability to support a point spontaneously. The best Impromptu competitors will do this every round. They will have their points and simply figure out how the speech will be directed and finished as they go. They are constantly thinking about the issue and not worrying about the structure of the speech since they already figured that out during the prep time. They memorize their thesis and main points for an outline and speak from there.

And this will not change for any of their points. Another way to view this is like telling a story to a friend. The best Impromptu students at Nationals approach their topic like a conversation with a friend. Although they know how they feel, it is only when they begin to speak that they are able to link details. When they talk about one specific thing, it jogs their memory about something else. This is exactly what needs to happen during an Impromptu speech. Visualize it as a conversation where a major story or example is being recounted and it leads into other points. If one prepares too much in advance, they will freeze because their focus will be on remembering all of their intended content during prep time. This is near impossible and will work against the speaker. So keep it simple. Use prep time for building the structure and the speaking for developing details.

Impromptu Speaking is something that takes a lot of practice and confidence. After one or two tournaments there will be considerable growth. But this takes a willingness to be vulnerable. The first few times speakers feel a loss of words because it is new. Just remember that this is like a conversation and not everything must be known before entering the round to speak. Listen to what is being said and make progressive points from there. Do this and the judge will notice the ability to stay smooth and concise. The ranking will reflect this accordingly.