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The Impromptu Speech

( Originally Published 1922 )

The impromptu speech is made on the spur of the moment. At a dinner, a town meeting, a director's conference, one is called upon to speak. There is no time for a carefully constructed, nicely worded discourse; the speaker must take his feet, pull himself together mentally, and, using the ideas and words that come first, express himself as best he may. The man who can make a strong impromptu speech has at his command a tool worth almost everything; for it is he who can seize the opportunity as it presents itself, and not be compelled to sit silent while matters of importance are being decided, later to think remorsefully of all the good things he might have said if he had only been prepared.

In all probability the average man has ten chances to speak impromptu to one where he is loaded and primed ready for what may come. Of course, it is a question whether any one ever makes a really good speech for which he has not made preparation. Perhaps the greatest impromptu effort on record was that of Wendell Phillips at the Lovejoy meeting in Faneuil Hall, in November, 1837 described in the chapter on the oration in this book. Phillips spoke without a moment's direct preparation. But, strictly speaking, he had been getting ready for that speech for years. His education, his sympathies, his thought life, had all moved toward that first supreme testing time when he was called upon to deliver a stirring defense of the principles to which he had dedicated himself. Chauncey Depew, also, made his first public address impromptu. It was at a political meeting where the big speaker of the evening had failed to arrive. Depew, just out of college, was called on to fill the gap. At first he did not know what to say. But he had been having some lively arguments with his father on the issues of the campaign. "So I just talked to them as I had been talking to my father," says Depew, "and it seems the audience thought it a pretty good speech." Again there had been preparation in an indirect way for the moment of opportunity.

Conversation, thought, careful reading, a good general training in public speaking, these are the pathways that lead to success in impromptu speech; and unfortunate indeed is he today who would take any part at all in public affairs who has not the full mind and the ready tongue that these things give, at hand to use in the big moments that come at the crossroads of every man's life.


1. Speak whenever you feel moved to express an honest idea in class meetings, at the club, in Christian Endeavor or League, at the Y. M. C. A. Always make a complete, worth-while speech, even though it is only two minutes in length.

2. In class let someone come to the recitation prepared to give a rousing talk on some subject upon which there is known to be much difference of opinion. When the speaker has finished every one will want to talk. Give each student who wishes it three minutes to speak on the same subject.

3. Try this old-fashioned game. Prepare subjects for talks. Call on each member of the class to make a speech, handing him his subject as he takes the floor.

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