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

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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 to talk to the audience.

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 leaders’ worst nightmare: Giving a talk with zero prep time. How do you not just panic, throw up, freeze like a deer in 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, 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, we 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 course, The Art of 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, or 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 yourself. (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

You’ve Prepared Your Sermon. You’re Ready For Sunday. But Is It Any Good? Will It Land?

Here’s the problem... you only ever find out if your sermon didn't connect after you've already preached it.

So, what can you do when seminary didn't really prepare you to speak into the current reality of our culture or connect with a growing audience?

What will change that?

Option #1 - Years of trial-and-error (what I did).

Option #2 - Transform your preaching starting today.

While there are aspects of preaching that are out of our control, certain skills that make a sermon engaging, memorable, and relevant can be learned and practiced.

That’s exactly why Mark Clark (Senior Pastor at Bayside Church) and I created The Art of Preaching. It's our comprehensive guide that will transform your preaching—from preparation to delivery .

The course covers the foundations of truly effective preaching:

  • Understanding what God has called you to do
  • How to ensure you’re doing exegesis (not eisegesis)
  • Changes you can make to your delivery and weekly process

But it goes WAY beyond that, too. We share our entire method that we use every single time we preach:

  • Specific reasons a sermon may not be effective
  • 5 easy steps you can take to ditch your notes for good
  • The step-by-step process to write a clear and memorable bottom line
  • How to find power in the text
  • And more…

It’s helped 2,500+ pastors preach more engaging and memorable sermons, and it can do the same for you.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.