How to Give An Impromptu Speech When You Have Zero Prep Time


It freaks everyone out, but at some point or another, you’re going to be called to give an impromptu talk.

Maybe it will be in front of eight people in the boardroom after the boss taps you on the shoulder and says “What do you have to say about that? Get up and tell us!”

Or maybe you’re speaking at an event and you learn the keynote speaker’s flight was canceled, and they call on you at the last minute.

Or maybe you feel like the talk you prepared isn’t the right one, and you need to take things in a whole new direction, and you’re up in five minutes.

As a full time communicator, I’ve been there…in almost every scenario you can think of.

In any scenario, cue most leader’s worst nightmare: giving a talk with zero prep time. How do you not just panic, throw up, freeze like a deer in the headlights or ramble on like someone who had their brain removed?

Here’s How It Can Happen To You

I was twelve years old when I gave my first impromptu talk. I was supposed to give a five-minute talk to our church family about the camp I’d been to that summer. Someone else was cued up to speak ahead of me,  and she basically said exactly what I was going to say.

So what did that twelve-year-old kid do? According to my dad, I walked on stage, made up a bunch of new points, and no one knew the difference.

What started at 12 has happened more times than I can count since.

Here are three quick examples:

Numerous times at events, I’ve watched the previous speaker cover points I was going to make. At that moment I know I have to pivot, and I’m up next. Apparently, this doesn’t only happen to 12-year-olds.

A few years ago, r I was at a conference when I learned the night before that the keynote couldn’t make it. I got asked to step in…in front of 3000 people.

Years ago at our church, were in a video series with Andy Stanley and the video playback died. Just died. Right in the middle of the service. I’d heard the message at the previous service, but with literally 30 seconds notice, I got pushed onto the stage. The lights came up. I explained to the congregation that the video had died so I was up with zero prep, having heard the message once before. Then I proceeded to do the best I could to recite what I remembered from Andy’s message and improvised my own take. After the 40-minute message was over, people cheered.

How do you carry yourself in moments like those?

Look, I have a huge preference for writing messages months and weeks ahead of delivery, and highly recommend that.

I outline an entire process for delivering amazing sermons and talks in my new course, The Art of Better Preaching. So 99.9% of the time, go with that.

But at some point, with zero prep, you’re going to be pushed onto a platform to speak.

Then what?

How do you simply not freeze or stumble all over your words, or just meander your way to disaster?

Here are 5 ways to handle that moment when it comes.

1. Don’t Panic

The biggest enemy you have when you’re called on at the last moment and you panic is you.

Your emotions will threaten to hijack your brain. You’ll convince yourself that you’re not able to do a good job, that this is unfair, that you haven’t got it in you to rise to the occasion.

Start believing that, and the voices in your head will be 100% accurate.

The biggest enemy when you panic Click To Tweet

Except they’re not. You can do a good job. And no, it’s not unfair (people want to hear from you) and you’ve got this.

The best way to deal with your natural fear is to push past it. So push past it.

After all, this is happening, and you’re more ready than you think.

The best way to deal with your natural fear is to push past it. So push past it. Click To Tweet

2. Think About What Your Audience Needs

So where do you start?

Left unchecked, you’ll only think about you. (You’ll invent 100 new insecurities on the spot. See #1 above.)

So, shift your view for a moment and think about what your audience needs.

Who’s the room?

What are their issues?

What do you possess that might help them?

How can you empathize with what they’re going through?

Speakers who care about their audience will always have a more engaged audience.

Speakers who care about their audience will always have a more engaged audience. Click To Tweet

3. Focus on what You Already Know

Great…so you’ve thought (even momentarily) about your audience and tried to silence the panic in your head and heart.

Now what?

Your mind might naturally want to focus on what you don’t know. After all, you couldn’t prepare. No research. No carefully crafted phrases. Zero prep.

Your head will go back to this: clearly, I can’t tackle this.

Not true.

You’ve got a few decades of life under your belt, and you know something.

Focus on that.

For professional communicators (preachers, leaders), you’ve likely got a few talks under your belt that you can cherry pick from. Do it.

Pull from that sermon you preached last September or that talk you gave in June. It’s not unfair. And it’s not cheating. It’s called serving your audience well.

And if you go with what you know, you’ll be coherent.

A coherent you is better than a rambling you.

A coherent you is better than a rambling you. Click To Tweet

Even if you’re not in the habit of speaking, you know a lot about some things. Draw on that knowledge.

When you panic, you’ll be tempted to focus on what you don’t know. Focus on what you know instead.

You know way more than you think.

Speakers, fear will make you focus on what you don't know. Focus on what you do know instead. Click To Tweet

4. Pretend You’re Having a Conversation…Because You Are

In all impromptu talks, here’s a principle that simply works: pretend you’re having a conversation. Because you are.

Why does imagining you’re having a conversation work?

Because you do it every day. Think about it.

How much time do you prepare for the conversations you have every day? For the most part, unless you’re asking for a raise or having a tough intervention, the answer is “Well, I don’t.”


That’s the thing about conversations….you just have them.

So go have one.

The thing about conversations is you just have them. So speakers, go have one in front of a lot of people. Click To Tweet

Pretend you’re talking to one person and just explaining your thoughts, ideas and feelings.

You’ll be amazed at how easy it is.

A conversation has a natural flow. Go with that flow. Your accumulated lifetime experience of interacting with other people will move you toward forming an introduction, a main point (or points) and an ending.

The pressure of speaking in front of a live audience will help you stay focused, sharp and concise.

So…you have conversations all the time that you never prepare for. And you’re fine in them.

This time, a bunch of people just happened to show up.

When asked to give an impromptu talk, just pretend you're having a conversation. Because you are. Click To Tweet

5. Finish Early (It’s Okay…Really)

Of all the things communicators struggle with, this is one of the worst: we convince ourselves we don’t have enough to say to fill the time.

First, that’s almost never true. Most speakers and preachers go over time, every time. Cue the buzzer for that habit.

Second, the audience is almost always grateful when a speaker finishes on time and extra grateful when the speaker wraps up early.

If you run out of things to stay (and you might), stop. Even if you’re done early.

Worried you’re disappointing your host? Just say “It’s been a joy to share this impromptu moment with you, I think that’s all I have to say. Thank you.”

Cue the thunderous silent applause going on in every audience member’s head.

People are incredibly grateful when communicators realize they’re done.

A communicator who knows they’re done before the audience senses they’re done is a wise communicator.

A communicator who knows they're done before the audience senses they're done is a wise communicator. Click To Tweet

What About When You Have Prep Time?

art of better preaching

So that’s it. A five-step strategy to help you nail an impromptu talk, or at least not blow it.

But what about every other time you need to speak when you actually have time to prepare?

That’s when you can use a strategy. If you want to improve your regular speaking, there’s some help.

The Art of Better Preaching Course will guide you through a tried-and-true sermon preparation process, prepare you to write talks that connect with unchurched and churched people alike, and help you connect with your congregation more than ever before. It will help you go from good to great, becoming the best communicator you can be.

This is the complete course you need to start preaching better sermons, including:

  • How to give a talk without using notes
  • How to write memorable one-sentence bottom lines people will remember for years
  • 7 preaching myths it’s time to bust forever
  • The 5 keys to preaching sermons to unchurched people (that will keep them coming back)
  • How to discover the power in the text (and use it to drive your sermon)
  • The specific characteristics of sermons that reach people in today’s world
  • How to keep your heart and mind fresh over the long run

And far more! Plus you get an interactive workbook and some bonus resources that will help you write amazing messages week after week.

In the Art of Better Preaching, Mark Clark and I share everything we’ve learned about communicating in a way that will help your church grow without compromising biblical integrity. We cover detailed training on everything from interacting with the biblical text to delivering a talk without using notes, to writing killer bottom lines that people will remember for years.

Don’t miss out! Check it out today and gain instant access.

In the meantime, let’s share some learning.

What are some other things you’ve learned that help you give a decent impromptu talk?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

How to Give An Impromptu Speech When You Have Zero Prep Time


  1. Pastor Nana Ama on February 3, 2020 at 10:37 pm

    Wow Wow Wow. I have really been Blessed
    Thank you so much. More Grace to you

  2. India Dennis on February 3, 2020 at 11:55 am

    Once I was the pulpit supply pastor for a small African-American congregation (I’m a white woman), one of whose members died while I was out of town. The elder who called me simply said, “I’ll let you know if we need you.” My husband and I arrived at the service a few minutes late and began to get seated in an auditorium filled with over 400 worshipers and look at our bulletins. Immediately one of the church’s elders signaled for me to come into the foyer and whispered, “Pastor, you’re supposed to be up on the podium. You’re giving the eulogy and message.” I gave him a shocked look and said, “You better start praying and get me a Bible, because no one told me that!!” As I prayed my way down the hall to go up on the stage, this dear Christian man handed me a Bible and said in his beautiful Ghanaian English accent, “Don’t worry, Pastor. THE LORD IS WITH YOU.” And the LORD was with me….After the service, quite few attendees approached me and said enthusiastically, “I didn’t know a white woman could preach like that!” To which I replied, “I didn’t either. Give the glory to God!” TRUST THE LORD, lean hard on and into the Holy Spirit, be faithful to God’s Word, and GOD will do “exceedingly abundantly above all you ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).

  3. Tom Lathen on February 3, 2020 at 11:29 am

    One time I was called Saturday night to fill in for the Pastor Sunday morning. First thing I did was pray. The second thing I did was examine what was in my heart, what was God prompting me to talk about.
    Then I prayed that the words would be God blessed, and you know, it went pretty well. Thanks be to God.

  4. TJ on January 2, 2020 at 11:21 am

    How does one handle it when you know nothing about the topic ? Do you take the conversation to another topic that you do know?

  5. dode overton on July 24, 2018 at 5:57 am

    Get in their boat and grab an oar.

    • Mike Duke on July 24, 2018 at 1:34 pm

      I like that Dode. Good point

  6. Larry Myers Sr on July 23, 2018 at 4:45 pm

    Carey, I love all of your posts. This one really hit home. I just got thrown in this position this past year. Sister-n – law passed. Family spent plenty of time together leading up to the funeral. Believe it, while sitting there waiting for service to begin ( within minutes), I decided to open the obituary to check out the order of service. Who name on the very top? Mind, to read the old and New Testament
    ( after a quick thought, what???) I jumped in gear within seconds just before he called me to the podium Thanks God I’m a Christian, otherwise, no way would I’ll accepted this task. As you stated, it’s just like having a conversation with a person. You best think positive and think quickly. I don’t think They’ll ever ask you to speak if they did not think you’re capable of pulling it off. Say what to be said, make it relatively short, acknowledge the moment, say thanks and have a seat.

    Carey, Thanks for the book, “ Didn’t See It Coming.” Really enjoying reading it. I recommend every that everyone run out and get a copy when it hit the shelves in September… keep the posts coming Carey. Blessings

  7. Dianne Ramster on July 23, 2018 at 10:18 am

    I love this post – lots of practical information in point form. Well, they are all good posts – thanks Carey, keep them coming.

  8. Lee Joseph on July 23, 2018 at 10:10 am

    Good, interesting, unique, practical, readily implementable, and helpful points that logically flow start to finish! I especially like “focus on what you already know” and “pretend you are having a conversation.”

  9. Mike Duke on July 23, 2018 at 9:04 am

    It has happened and will happen to all. Personally, I find it important to understand that it does happen to everyone at some time. Who hasn’t been thrown to speak and their minds are everywhere but the current context. I’ve found it equally important to stand by what I’ve said, regardless of how I or someone else may perceive it. Let’s face it, we’re going to get it very wrong sometimes but how can we expect to learn? The idea of “cheers” concerns me. If that’s the goal, personally, I would reconsider my motivation to speak in the first place. Humility, kindness and honesty will always win. Maybe not for everyone, but for me. I find it comforting that Paul was not a gifted orator either. So in those moments, I know I’m in good company.

    • Lee Joseph on July 23, 2018 at 10:11 am

      Good, interesting, unique, practical, readily implementable, and helpful points that logically flow start to finish! I especially like “focus on what you already know” and “pretend you are having a conversation.”

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