How to Give an Extemporaneous Speech

Four tips to give an effective and stirring extempore speech, inspired by an impromptu 60-min address by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India's new leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, created a stir with his speech at India's Independence Day Celebrations on Aug 15 this year. This marks the day India became free from British Rule in 1947, opening up a new chapter as the world's largest democracy. Independence Day speeches by India's erstwhile Prime Ministers have often been ritualistic addresses where government policies have been announced by reading from prepared scripts. Modi raised the bar significantly, speaking extemporaneously - i.e., without referring to any script – for 60+ minutes, offering an impassioned call to the Indian people to work toward getting the country to rise to its full potential.

For may of us, public speaking is one of our greatest fears. So how does someone deliver an inspired speech for over one hour, and that, too, extemporaneously? I don't know how Modi did it, but through my study of the lives of great leaders, my conclusion is that there are four different paths one can take here.

1. SCRIPT IT: One way to give a great extemporaneous address is to write down your speech, memorize it, rehearse it, and then finally go out and deliver it immaculately from memory. This isn't a bad formula, though it probably won't work (unless you have a prodigious memory) for very long speeches. You may have heard a speech like this on some occasion, and you may have experienced a certain rigid, robotic, rehearsed, over-polished quality to it. Churchill, early in his political career, used to give these kinds of memorized speeches in Parliament until one day he forgot his words mindstream, retiring abruptly as his opponents mocked his sudden speechlessness.

2. PLAN IT: Here's a second way to do this: Lay out the key points you want to make, establish the sequence in which they will flow, internalize this plan through some mental rehearsal, and then go out and deliver your talk using improvised language but a well-planned "storyboard". You are likely to come across as much more natural when you use this approach in contrast to the scripted approach, as though you are having a largely spontaneous, human-to-human, everyday conversation with your audience. "Plan It", unlike "Script It", also gives you the ability to improvise – for example, to shorten or embellish parts of the speech – depending on what your audience needs at that moment. But this approach raises the stakes for you – you need to be a clear communicator and a compelling storyteller in everyday moments, for when in fact your ideas and stories aren't scripted and rehearsed, you will have to lean on your everyday style of communication to give voice to your key points. The more well-crafted and engaging your everyday communications are, the more prepared you are to engage in this form of extemporaneous public speaking.

3. LIVE IT: What if you are called to speak on something without the opportunity to prepare in advance? Perhaps an unexpected situation arises at work, and you have to immediately speak to your team. Perhaps a client calls you into a meeting and asks you to speak on the spot about something. Or perhaps you step up to the podium to address your audience and realize that your prepared message just won't work with them today. What are the secrets to a powerful extemporaneous address with very minimal or no opportunity to prepare? My guess is that it starts with the life of the speaker. How have they been living their life? How consistent and clear and compelling is their vision, their principles and their everyday thoughts on the topic they are asked to speak about? Is their behavior aligned with their principles? Have they cultivated a rich body of stories, arguments and insights on the topic they are to speak on? Have they made it a daily discipline to connect warmly with people, to crystallize their thoughts clearly, to debate respectfully, and to be engaging in their exchanges with colleagues, friends, strangers, and family members? Do they see the audience as a friend, as someone to be manipulated, scolded or talked down to, or as someone who is judging them? How impassioned are they about their ideas? The third way is where the extemporaneous speech is simply an organic extension of who you are and how you operate every day, in the thoughts that inhabit your mind and the conversations and behaviors that you engage in.

4. TUNE IN TO IT: Sometimes a great creative achievement – a poem, a musical composition, a scientific discovery, a speech – emerges in a stream-of-consciousness manner, from a source who, from their own perspective, is merely acting as a channel, seeking to tune in to the wisdom of the Universe, and then creating something powerful that they don't even feel they can directly take credit for. I do not believe that present-day science has understood this realm, and yet, stories of such acts abound in history – Joan of Arc comes to mind, as does Gandhi, who said, "There is force in the universe, which, if we permit it, will flow through us and produce miraculous results". And here are the words of Brahms, " When I feel the urge I begin by appealing directly to my Maker…I immediately feel vibrations that thrill my whole being…straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind’s eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies, and orchestration. Measure by measure, the finished product is revealed to me ." From where do these ideas come, and how? Are people who report such experiences delusional, or are they accessing a realm that most of us are not consciously tuned in with?

So when you want to give an extemporaneous speech, Script It, Plan It, Live It or Tune In To It. These paths don't have to be either-or. In the same speech, you could start with a couple of scripted remarks that you have memorized, to help you get off the ground. You could then go into the main body of your talk in a more free-form manner, based on a plan. Occasionally during your talk a relevant thought or a story may strike you on the spot, as you feed off the energy of your audience. And on a rare occasion you may experience a state of flow where, unconsciously, you express an idea that you had never thought of before, as though your mind just plucked it fresh off the Cosmic Tree, leaving you with the feeling, "Where did this come from?".

I do not know the inner workings of Prime Minister Modi's mind, but my guess is that all four of these elements must be at play in his speech on Independence Day. What examples of inspiring extemporaneous speeches have you seen, or perhaps delivered yourself? And what do you think of the Script It - Plan It - Live It - Tune In To It model I have shared?