Every so often, I’m asked if there’s any speech event that’s a necessity to compete in. My answer is always the same: “Impromptu”. Impromptu is an event that pushes your speaking style and thinking to the maximum. Learning the event is one of the most effective ways to become a better speaker. But whenever I tell people about competing in impromptu, I generally receive the same answer: “the event is too intimidating”. That’s a fair point – you have two minutes of preparation with no notes.
However, impromptu is only intimidating if you don’t understand the foundation of the event. Once you understand that foundation, the two minutes of preparation will feel like you have all the time in the world, and the speech will flow naturally. The crux of impromptu is personal stories.
I want to be really clear with what I mean by this: I do not suggest you prescript personal stories. I’ve seen many competitors go that route, and it always becomes obvious to the judge that material is being recycled. While it may seem difficult to think of personal stories on the spot, there’s a method to impromptu that will change how you think about and compete in the event.
Build your analysis from the stories, not the other way around.
What I mean by that is when you receive your topic for impromptu, your first thought should be “What are some instances in my life where this topic has come into effect?”. Once you think of that personal story, draw a lesson from it. Most competitors prep impromptu the other way around where they think “what are some lessons I can say about this topic?” and then forcing prescripted stories onto that lesson. With the conventional method, stories won’t flow naturally nearly as consistently. When you first, find the story and then second, build the lesson, the content will flow naturally.
For example, let’s say you receive the topic “Change”. Ask yourself: “What are some instances in my life where change has come into effect?”. Maybe instances like a time you changed how you acted around others, your family moving, or times you changed who you’re friends with may come to mind. There should be a plethora of examples that’ll come to you naturally. Then you’d pick the examples you view as most effective and draw a lesson from them.
If you have an example about changing to become more honest, lessons along the lines of how change is worth it, or why change is so important. You’d use this same process to create 2-3 main points, and you’d have your speech. You’d give an introduction, and deliver a story and a lesson under each point, with some type of overarching theme at the end.
There are three main reasons I suggest this format:
First – The Nature of the Format
Unlike Apologetics or Extemporaneous, you can’t bring any outside documents into the round. Meaning that it’ll be difficult to consistently cite outside facts or statistics in impromptu. All you have is the knowledge in your head. Our memory consists primarily of past events we’ve experienced, so when you create a foundation for your impromptu out of those past events, you’ll be working from your largest source of content. Preparing your speech by first thinking of the story and then finding the principle will be the most efficient. In impromptu’s two minutes of preparation time, efficiency is key.
Plus, just giving logical principles in impromptu won’t be as memorable to judges as speaking from personal stories.
Second – Cohesiveness
In the 2020 season, I made semifinals in impromptu in one of the most competitive NCFCA national mixers of the season. The pressure was on. My competitors in the semifinals room consisted of people who’d consistently won impromptu at their local tournaments to people who made finals at nationals the year prior. I started to overthink my strategy and went into the room with principles I’d try to give in the speech no matter what. I thought that since these principles were the most impactful, they’d be my best shot at advancing past semifinals.
The topic I received was “things I’ve learned recently”. I tried forcing on principles like honesty and morality, and I thought of vaguely connected stories about the principles and topic. When I gave the speech, it was clear that nothing fit together. The speech was utterly disconnected and I ended up… Last in the room.
By trying to find stories to fit principles rather than the other way around, the speech ended up seeming disconnected. It’s harder to find stories to fit a lesson in impromptu than it is the other way around. In impromptu, unlike many other events, topics are broad enough for you to find the story first and connect a principle from it.
When you find the story first, it’ll become easy to find a point to learn from it that’ll connect to the topic as well. Making the stories the foundation will create a cohesive impromptu speech.
Third – Relatability
Personal stories are the single best way to build connection and relatability with your judges. Stories signal that you’re open and happy to talk about events personal to you, which makes you more conversational and easier to listen to.
The tournament immediately after that mixer I was set on my original strategy. I would make the stories the foundation. I went on to win first at the tournament in impromptu and ended up with 75% of my ballots being first places for impromptu. Each ballot that listed me as first had a common theme: Relatability. The judges felt a real connection and a sense of personability to my speeches that set the speech apart from the rest of the competition.
Basing your speech around your stories will build relatability which is key to successful impromptu delivery.
Impromptu doesn’t have to be intimidating. When you build your speech from a foundation of personal stories, the event will be far more enjoyable than you may expect.
About the Author
Kyle Lee has competed in both NCFCA and Stoa. His accomplishments include over fifty top-three finishes, the record for the most first places won at a single NCFCA tournament (seven firsts in one go at the 2020 Bothell WA, NCFCA Qualifier), first place Lincoln Douglas debater & speaker at the 2020 NCFCA Online National Championship, and first place Team Policy debater & speaker at the 2020 Stoa Online National Championship.
Outside of speech and debate, Kyle is an avid rock climber, holds a second-degree black belt in Karate, and enjoys writing music in his free time.