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Everyone has their own template for structuring an impromptu speech. Some people use the tried and true “three examples” structure, while others have concocted more unique devices for reliably crafting interesting and impactful speeches with just two minutes of preparation.

Over the course of my five years competing in impromptu, I experimented with various approaches. I gave speeches with two points, three points, and four points; I gave speeches crafted solely around examples, speeches based nearly exclusively on topic analysis, speeches geared to maximize impact for the judges, and many other kinds of speeches to boot.

After three years of experimentation, I concluded that one technique in particular was the best: “What? Who? Why?”

How the Structure Works

Even for an impromptu structure, “What? Who? Why?” is very simple. You have three points, each of which answers one of those questions. The speech thus proceeds in order from what to who to why.

1. What: Explain the meaning of the topic. What is it? What kind of thing is it? Does it have a thesis? If so, what is the thesis? What argument does it make? If the topic is not an argument but a thing, what sort of thing is it? What significance does it have? What, if anything, does it represent?

2. Who: Explore applications of the topic. If the topic is an argument of some sort, who applied it in their lives? Did it go well for them, or poorly? Why? If the topic is not an argument, what example does it remind you of? What is the significance of this example? (This point is meant to be very flexible: you can use historical figures or personal acquaintances; you can use only one example or many.)

3. Why: This is by far the simplest—explicate the impact of the topic. Why should your audience care about your speech or the topic you drew? Should your audience change how they live their lives? If so, how?

Why the Structure Works

1. It is clear: No one is ever going to forget it because it is very simple. It is easy for the judge to write down—in fact, it is just ten characters total (W-H-O-W-H-A-T-W-H-Y).

2. It is flexible: You can spend as much time (or as little time) as you want on each point. For topics where many examples come to mind, you can give what is essentially a better-structured “three example” speech. For topics where only one or two examples come to mind, you are not trapped because you can spend any excess time with definitions and motivation. In short, you will never be trapped by an unlucky topic because your structure is too rigid.

3. It is comprehensive: Everything you could want to talk about in an impromptu speech will fit within these three questions. There are exactly three kinds of points that you would want to bring up in an impromptu speech—definitional, empirical, and motivational—and this structure allows you to tackle each one in a clear and understandable way.

4. It proceeds logically: This structure not only addresses the three points you want to talk about, but it also addresses them in the right order. First, it tells the audience what the thing you are talking about is; then, it shows the audience what it does; finally, it advises the audience on how to use it.

Final Thoughts

You don’t have to agree with me that this is “the best” impromptu structure. But, after having used it for two full years of impromptu, I am convinced that you ought to at least give it a shot—and see how it fits you.

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