This review ran in the Jan. 15 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
Impromptu: Leading in the Moment
Something remarkable happened at work.
We went to a town hall meeting and a conversation broke out.
Here’s how it happened.
Senior leaders stepped out from behind the lectern, left the stage and went into the audience.
They didn’t have prepared remarks or PowerPoint slides. They hadn’t gone to a dress rehearsal and some had no idea they were about to be called on.
Senior leaders started off by giving spontaneous answers to real questions that staff had written on cue cards at the start of the town hall.
This in turn prompted other staff to put up their hands and ask even more questions.
The conversation continued for more than 90 minutes. The town hall ended with a round of applause. Senior leaders were grateful for the questions. Staff appreciated the authentic, candid, off the cuff answers.
The town hall was unlike any I had attended over my 25-year career with four organizations.
Judith Humphrey, author of Impromptu, says that leadership communications is undergoing a transformation. We’re moving from one-off formal speeches on the big stage to continuous impromptu speaking on smaller stages.
“More than ever, those who lead must find their authentic voice. Impromptu speaking provides a way to connect, inspire and lead in the 21st century world,” says Humphrey. “Scripted speeches, PowerPoint presentations, dog and pony shows, and marketing hype are being replaced by the conversations that leaders have every day with their followers. These conversations will change minds, hearts and organizations.”
Don’t confuse impromptu speaking with winging it. You won’t inspire others if you can’t stop talking and don’t make any sense.
You can mitigate this risk by using a four-part script template used by Humphrey’s leadership communications firm.
“Creating your script is an important aspect of impromptu speaking,” says Humphrey. “It will keep you from blathering on as so many people do. In every situation it’s important to collect your thoughts rather than spew out whatever comes in your head. With a clear and persuasive structure, you will influence and inspire your listeners. There is no more critical a skill for impromptu speaking than this ability to structure your thoughts.”
Humphrey’s template has you leading off with a grabber that connects you with your audience and builds rapport. “If you speak without reaching out to them and engaging them, it’s likely nobody will listen to you. Think of your grabber as a verbal handshake.”
You then deliver your key message. A good message is limited to one idea that’s communicated in a single, short sentence. Your message should engage the hearts and minds of your audience, carry your convictions and be positive.
You then make a compelling case for your key message with a handful of reinforcing proof points. “Stating your message is rarely sufficient. You need evidence that encourages listeners to buy into that point of view. So after presenting what you believe, share why you believe it.”
The script ends with you making a call to action to your audience. Be explicit. What do you want them to start, stop or continue doing? Like the grabber at the start of the script, your call to action needs to engage your audience. “It gives legs to your message by transforming an idea into actionable steps. In doing so, it makes your script an act of motivational leadership.”
Humphrey shows how we can use her script templates to effectively communicate in a host of situations, from meetings, job interviews, toasts and tributes to elevator pitches, question and answer sessions and speeches.
“Few skills are more important today for leaders and aspiring leaders than the ability to speak well in impromptu situations,” says Humphrey. “The day when executives could deliver the big speech and then retreat to their offices is long gone. Constant, spontaneous interactions with colleagues, senior executives, clients and stakeholders has become the norm. The new world of leadership is full of conversation, collaboration and charisma. Make the most of these opportunities.”
@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.