How to give a speech on the fly

The lovely Scarlet Johansson at The Women's March Photo:  Vanity Fair

The lovely Scarlet Johansson at The Women's March
Photo: Vanity Fair

Last Thursday morning, I received a text from a female founder I’m working with. It read: 

Rachel, I was supposed to do an inspirational Ted-style talk tonight but I have to back out (health reasons). Before I cancel though, I wanted to see if you might want to speak on the topic of female empowerment in my place. I know it’s last minute. Let me know…

My immediate reaction was: NOPE.

Although I love public speaking, self-doubt took over and filled me with excuses: I didn’t have a speech prepared, I was rusty, it’d been a couple months since I stood on a stage, my son was home sick with me, and most worrisome of all… I didn’t have the clout of a big fancy job to make me sound important to a room full of strangers.

I started to respond… and then thought to myself: will you regret missing this opportunity?
The answer was an overwhelming yes. I’d feel like a chicken, a fraud of a coach, and I’d always wonder if taking this chance could lead to something really great.

So, I wrote back: “of course”. And got to work.

I want to share a few tips I’ve learned over the years about pulling a speech out of your ass. Being able to do so is an invaluable skill that will keep giving throughout your life. Having the confidence needed to present on the fly, you’ll have more opportunities to build your personal brand, share the magic inside your brain with the world, and impress your friends at weddings. I want you to do it pro-style, without reading, or even looking at your notes… ;)

Here’s is my fool-proof recipe for drafting your talk. When in doubt, follow this formula:

1. Start with a personal story. The more vulnerable or shocking, the better. This serves two purposes: 1. It make the audience endear you right away. 2. It reduces the chances you’ll mess up or forget what you’re talking about — because you’re sharing a real story. Personally, I like the “cold open” approach to storytelling. Before telling anyone who you are or what you’re going to talk about, just dive into the story, and hook people right away. This is def a pro move. After your story, you can add an intro and additional context to your being there if needed.

2.  Make it about them. Once you’re done with your personal story, you’ve got to pivot and make the story relevant to your audience. You can literally say something like, “so, how does this relate to you?” and then transition into why they should care. 

3. Use numbers. Give your audience something of value to latch onto. Or give them three things. Telling your audience they’re about to walk away with X number of facts or tips or insights. Make whatever you’re about to give them more memorable and easy to share with others later.

What’s my process? 

  • I always type it out, verbatim, as I would say it. Even the jokes. Even the laughing. Haha!
  • I read it aloud to myself, change a few things that feel clunky coming out of my mouth, then handwrite a bare-bones cheat sheet on a single sheet of paper — just enough to information to help me recall which section of the speech I’m on with a glance.
  • Then, I walk away from my computer and start practicing aloud from memory, only using my cheat sheet as necessary.
  • I practice enough to ensure I know most of it by heart (about 5-10x).

If you want to run your speech by a friend or family member, I’d recommend reading your original script to them early in the process— if they encourage you to change anything, you definitely don’t want that to happen once you’ve memorized large portions of it.

I’m pleased (and honestly dumbfounded) to report that my speech the other night could not have gone any better. I felt prepared, confident, cool. My story was right for the audience. They laughed, they cried, they related. And when it was over? People literally lined up to talk to me. And when they couldn’t wait any longer, they handed me their business cards to ensure we would talk later. Guys, it was surreal. I’m 1000% glad I pulled up my big-girl pants and took the chance. With three additional speaking gigs lined up for this month, I feel prepared and confident.

I hope if you’re given a similar opportunity, you’ll take it too.


Until next time,