Spotlight on impromptu topics

Linda Macrow, LAMDA Exams’ chief examiner, gives her tips on impromptu speeches.

03 July 2020

Giving a speech before an audience can be a daunting task, but for those learners working their way up the grades in their Speaking in Public exams, there’s an extra challenge when they reach the medal grades (that’s Grades 6, 7 and 8 – bronze, silver and gold respectively). Once learners start working on exams that can earn them UCAS points, they are expected to deliver an impromptu speech. Given nothing more than a topic to start them off, they only have 15 minutes to prepare before they begin.  

With no access to books or the internet, learners are entirely reliant on their own thoughts to form their speech. “Which is one of the reasons that we give them three choices,” explains Linda Macrow, LAMDA Exams’ chief examiner. 

While in the exam room, learners are given a card with three topics for them to choose from. These topics are selected randomly from a carefully thought-out list, but they will always fall within the same umbrella categories. One personal or cultural (‘the person I most admire’), one topical (‘should politics influence sport?’), one abstract (‘orange’). “Because obviously we don't know the age of the learner before they come in,” says Linda.  “And if the learner is, let's say, in their 70s, which could happen, and the three topics are, school uniform, skateboarding and gaming, they might not be relevant. But with three to choose from, they’ll hopefully cover anybody's interests and anybody's ages and experience and culture.” 

To keep things fresh (and to make sure the ‘topical’ topics really are topical), the list is updated on a regular basis. They are devised by a panel of examiners to give learners a good jumping off point for their speeches – allowing them to demonstrate the skills that they’ve been working on as they prep for their exams. 

Once they’ve selected their subject matter, the learner has 15 minutes to come up with a plan. Some learners start writing out their speech longhand. “That probably wouldn't be the best way to use your time,” says Linda. “But the way they prepare their speech is something that they will have addressed with their teacher while learning their skills. 

“Most learners will look at the topic, and then put together some key phrases and some key words. Many teachers will advise their learners that this the best way.” 

Learners should also use this time to consider their audience. This is up to the learner, but the way they construct their speech and the words they choose, should be targeted towards a particular group – whether that be a group of primary-school children, or a collective of professionals. “If they decide to start using all sorts of scientific terms but they suggested their audience is of five-year olds, it would inevitably affect the mark awarded for choice of vocabulary.” 

Whatever the audience, with only 15 minutes to prepare, the examiner will not be expecting PhD viva from the speech, but the learner should aim to produce a structure to their speech, taking their chosen audience on a journey with a beginning, middle and end. 

The examiner keeps the learner updated on timings and when the 15 minutes are up, it’s time to give their speech. 

Learners will be marked on their delivery. “Whether they are loud enough,” explains Linda. “The clarity. The breath control. If they go too fast.  

“In an impromptu speech, there is the temptation for the learner to rattle through it far too quickly because they’re nervous and they don’t want to forget what they want to say. Speaking too quickly will, more often than not, affect the clarity and power of their delivery. 

Then there’s audience awareness. “If they are using notes, and they deliver by reading into their notes the whole time, this will affect their marks. If they deliver but actually have great posture and reach out to the audience, vocally and visually, then they are going to get good marks for the delivery.” 

“It is a fact, that very often, when you are speaking in public, you've got a time constraint.” Linda gives an example of being broadcast on television, when you might only have a slither of time on the satellites before they move on, and cut you off if you go on too long, leaving your punch line unheard. 

“An effective conclusion to a speech can make the speech a success or a failure. Politicians, good politicians, are brilliant at that. Listening to famous speeches can be a great way to understand how to leave an audience with food for thought.” 

Learners will also disadvantage themselves if their speech is too short. The speech needs to be long enough to show off their skills.  

It’s a lot to think about! But these are all important skills to learn, even if you don’t plan on joining politics.  

“Interviews,” explains Linda. “When you're in an interview, you will be often asked questions that you are not prepared for. Being able to think on your feet is actually quite an important skill for interview technique. 

“It encourages that ability to come up with something in the moment and put together thoughts in an orderly fashion, in a short space of time."  

Linda also cites debating, where “speaking fluently and spontaneously without loads of preparation, becomes an absolute skill.” 

But this quick-thinking ability is useful even outside the confines of structured forums. “I was thinking about this this morning and another area where an impromptu, or the skills that support impromptu speaking come in, is in leadership.  

“Being a leader often requires you having to speak in the moment. And being able to create an impromptu speech, by default, helps you to develop those skills.” 

Linda’s top tips 

  • Make bullet points to map out the journey of your speech using the simple template: beginning, middle, end  
  • Do not write your speech out in in long hand, this is not the best use of your time and inhibits the spontaneous delivery you are aiming for when presenting your speech  
  • Develop the body (that’s the ‘middle’) of your speech with the key information. This can be a combination of knowledge, facts and even personal experience if appropriate  
  • Try to create a definitive and memorable conclusion  
  • Keep an eye on the time and leave a few minutes spare to practise. Speak aloud!   
  • Remember all the usual speaking in public skills: engage with the audience, avoid looking at your note cards, use a well-modulated voice and speak slowly