Skip to content

How to Be Great At Impromptu Speaking: By Past President and National Topics Champion Bill Russell

May 20, 2013

In this post, Bill Russell, twice national champion for impromptu speaking shares his advice on speaking off the cuff.

LISTEN INTENTLY to the topic.  Not being afraid keeps the heart rate low and the brain pumping out possibilities.

Answer the question asked.  Real life doesn’t afford you the luxury of answering the question the previous person answered, waffling through a story that has little to do with the topic or just trying to score the laughs.  I learned a valuable lesson the first time I made the District Final in Ireland.  I had huge laughs throughout my answer and owned the crowd but only took 3rd place.  Countless Irish audience members came up afterwards and told me I gave “the wrong answer” to “is it better to be good looking or intelligent”. I chose good-looking because my mind was streaming with funny ideas on the topic but the Irish play the game differently – use humour but give the right answer.  I never forgot it.  When you consider that Topics was probably developed because most of our daily work and personal life is a series of impromptu speaking engagements, you should strive to give the right answer in almost all of those situations.  Sure, use humour but don’t make a joke of the matter at hand.

Never turn down the opportunity to take a topic, give an impromptu 7-minute speech or take a speaking assignment with little time to prepare.  Constantly putting yourself “under fire” allows you to conquer the fear and learn to handle the situation with aplomb.

Turn it into a mini-speech.  Strong opening that states your claim, provide stories, stats, quotations and rationalisations that substantiate your claim and summarise with a conviction and/or call to action that rallies the troops.

Use personal stories.  If you can provide personal stories that sufficiently parallel and corroborate your answer, you will be a winner in Topics and in most real-life “topics” situations.

Be honest and true to yourself.  Don’t try to be someone else.  Unless you’re Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis you won’t pull it off.  Like yourself, trust your opinions and be honest in your answers.

Enjoy the anxiety. I’ve personally never been nervous with Topics in a club situation. Sure, I’m a little nervous in a competition but that’s about wanting to win – not fear of failure.  It’s that beautiful rush of adrenalin that I use to my favour.  I don’t let it flood me but fuel me. Take advantage of that adrenalin rush.

Keep up with current affairs.  You rarely seem to get topics on current events but, it’s a big help to read the papers or listen to the news – just in case.  More importantly, it gives you access to a large range of answers, stories and anecdotes that you can tie into so many non-current event topics.  When you can map a topic to a current event you come across as extremely intelligent, in touch and in-tune.  A winner from every angle.

Engage in conversations with people you don’t know.  You won’t have any idea where the conversation will lead but you’ll have plenty of opportunities to understand the person’s slant on things by the questions he gives, the answers they provide and the facial expressions and body gestures you see when they listen to your answers.  You should be able to find the path that will lead to a fruitful exchange that can get your point across whilst still playing effectively to your audience (of one).

Choose an answer “with legs”.  I tend to have a range of answers that quickly come to mind when I stay calm and listen to the question.  I think a good portion of it is autopilot but I always choose the answer I think I can get the most mileage out of in terms of content and time.  I’m in an improvisational comedy troupe and there are so many times that a younger member of the troupe will grab the first thing that comes to their head and spills it out for a quick laugh.  The problem is that the choice has no legs.  It was a brief laugh at the expense of the rest of a 2-5 minute scene.  Take a moment (and we’re talking fractions of a second here) to make sure that you can sustain 2 minutes on whatever angle you choose.  But, just like in improv, once you say something commit to it.

Bill Russell

Bill started his career in Toastmasters as a Corinthian in 1995.  He was asked if he wanted to participate in Topics at his first meeting as a guest and won the coveted blue ribbon – and was immediately hooked.  Bill was a member from 1995 until 2010 when he moved to South Africa and served as our club President in 1996-1997.  He represented either London Corinthians or our Advanced Toastmasters club, Excalibur, in four District 71 Table Topics Championships winning the gold in 1999 and 2002.  He then “retired” from Topics competitions until moving to Southern Africa’s District 74 where he took 2nd place in the 2011 District 74 Finals – his first foray into competitive Topics in nine years.


Working or living in the LondonVictoria area? Want to know more about becoming a better public speaker? Visit London Corinthians on the 2nd, 4th and 5th Thursdays @ 7.30pm.

Find out more about us on our website:

Like us on Facebook:

Follow us on Twitter:

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: