Extemporaneous Talk

Sometimes, you may be asked to give an extemporaneous talk, which is a talk done with little or no preparation.  I will provide some examples of my having to talk or give a short speech without much foreknowledge.

There is a worldwide service organization called Rotary Clubs International whose aim is to organize Rotarians to provide community service to society, and to develop Rotarians into caring service minded individuals.  As a worldwide organization, Rotary is divided into various regions of the world, regions into districts, and districts then have units called local Rotary Clubs.  Each Rotary will then have individual Rotarians as members of the Club.  Each Rotary Club meets almost weekly and members are expected to attend a certain minimum number of meetings to maintain his/her good standing as a Rotarian.

Each Rotary Club's meeting follows a fairly standard format, and one feature of a Rotary Club meeting is the invited speaker, who may speak on almost any subject that the speaker is qualified to talk about.  Most talk about their occupation or job, government policy or procedure, some area of special interest to the speaker, or in some cases, an outright sales pitch.  I would say that, concerning the speakers I have heard in the Club I belong to as well as speakers in other Clubs that I have visited and listened to, most speakers do a lousy job of preparation and presentation of their speeches.  Most do not seem to think that the speech is really worth their while to prepare and deliver well, or if they have done the preparation, have not put in the time and effort to deliver an effective and good-to-listen to speech.  Some put in the effort to prepare a video or a computer controlled slide presentation, but there is poor coordination and timing as to the use of the visual effects and the actual speech itself.  The visual effects, even if done with the latest technical process, cannot cover for a poorly delivered speech.

One other feature of a Rotary Club meeting is that one member Rotarian is asked to deliver a "Vote of Thanks" to the speaker, and usually this request is made by the President of the Rotary Club to the member at the beginning of the meeting, when the member has not had prior notice that he would be asked to do this.

Doing the "Vote of Thanks" is a good example of having to do an extemporaneous speech.  Of course, one could, as most of the Rotarian members do, just say something very pleasant to the effect that the Club was honoured to have the speaker come and speak to the Club on the subject (whatever it may be), that the members learned a great deal about the subject and found the speech interesting, and that the Club wishes to thank the speaker.  This would be a simple thank you speech suitable for any "Vote of Thanks".  But then it adds nothing to the occasion, and such a thank you would be as non-memorable as the worst speech.

But if you wish to add something to the occasion, and in the process, develop skills in listening, synthesizing, honing, and delivering an extemporaneous speech, it's possible that your "Thanks" will be more memorable than maybe the speech itself.  How to do that?  Well, let's look at the table below for some actual "Vote of Thanks" that I have done at my own Rotary Club.
The Vote of Thanks - for the speech described below in this column; general description only, not the whole speech itself.

A view of a typical Rotary Club meeting.

How to do a "Vote of Thanks" - 
-  before the speech, meet the speaker if possible, get correct spelling and pronounciation of his name, find out general topic, and if available, get copy of his talk; make sure you have pen/paper and position yourself in a good location to hear the speech.

-  during the speech, listen carefully and concentrate, take good notes, highlight interesting quotes or "soundbites" from the speech, note questions posed by the speaker, mentally form the body of your "Vote of Thanks" speech, and note the key one or two conclusions of the speech.  (A "soundbite" is a phrase, usually just a few words, that capture the key point or essence of a longer phrase, or talk.  Used frequently by TV news stations when presenting the news.)

-  usually, there will be a question and answer period for the audience and speaker, and that few minutes is your preparation time.  Listen somewhat to questions/answers for anything of relevance, but form your own speech to cover at least one, at most three points; preferably, a short sentence for each point.  Use simple words, simple sentences.  Your speech should then be:

Opener:  "Mr. Chairman, Mr. Speaker, Audience, we certainly heard an interesting talk today...

Body:  Point 1...point 2....point 3 (wait for any laughter to die down before continuing.  Never talk when the audience is laughing or slightly noisy.  If there are two or three people in the audience chatting amongst themselves, just stop talking and look at them.  The silence will magnify their chatting and general rudeness in talking while there is a speaker at the rostrum or lecturn.)  Just one good point is preferable to 2 or 3 points, and is plenty enough.  Light, clean humour is also appropriate and a good closer for the whole event or meeting.

Ending:  Audience, please join me in thanking the speaker for coming and speaking to us today.  Thank you."

Below are the Body from the "Vote of Thanks" for the speech shown on the left hand column.

Talk given in January, 2001 by the Honourable Ronald J. Arculli, a leading politician and solicitor (by profession) in Hong Kong.  He talked about the issues and problems facing Hong Kong today, and did an admirable job of covering the main issues - economic, fiscal, and monetary policy, HK Government and personnel items, taxation, environmental and health problems, and issues that the Legislative Council must face.  Lots of relevant details and examples provided. "When I looked at the notes that I had taken of Mr. Arculli's speech (showing the two pages of detailed notes), I realized that he had done a comprehensive job of covering the Hong Kong waterfront - economic, fiscal, monetary, environmental, taxation, etc. issues and policies.  After all that, I have ONE regret, which is...That we did not tape record this talk.

Because if we had, then come this October when C. H. Tung (Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) has to give his "State of the Territory" address to the Legislative Council, all that has to be done is to play that recording.  And the address would be done with in 25 minutes, rather than us having to hear C.H. drone on for 3 hours (wild applause and laughter)."

Talk in mid 1998 by a Ms. Wong, head of a private agency that helps young people who don't do well at school or are drop-outs from school.  She described the problems facing these types of young people, and the history and work of the agency.  In Hong Kong's school system, students are categorized into bands, and those in bands 4 and 5 have bleak prospects of getting into top schools or universities.  Ms. Wong said that several years ago, there was no action or plan to deal with those students in bands 4 and 5, and these were the students who were or became irresponsible and uncontrollable.  And no one knew or cared what happened to these students.

The day of the speech was in the week when the new Hong Kong airport opened on the first anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China.  The first week was utter chaos at the airport, with delayed flights, no flight information, non-working computer systems, lost and damaged luggage, etc.  The day before, the Legislative Council had a hearing on the airport problems, and when one Legislator asked the assembled managers of the airport and airport authority, who is to take responsibility for the damage and losses caused by the chaos, there was total silence as everyone associated with the airport looked around at everyone else, at the floor, up towards the ceiling, or had a blank stare.  No one stood up.

"Ms. Wong in her talk raised a question of what happened to the band 4 and 5 students, the students who showed no sense of responsibility, as one of the reasons for the founding of her agency a few years ago.  No one knew what happened to them.

Well, judging from the scene at the Legislative Council hearing yesterday on the airport problems, we now know the answer to Ms. Wong's questions of where all those students ended up.  They all ended up working for the airport." (Wild applause and laughter, even from Ms. Wong herself, and a "Thumbs up".)

Talk in 1995 given by the Deputy General Manager of DHL International, a private packages and mail delivery service.  He talked about his company, history, policies, etc.  He also, as an aside, said that some customers referred to DHL to stand for "Deliveries Hopelessly Lost." This was the first "Vote of Thanks" I was asked to do right after I joined this Rotary Club.

"The speaker said that DHL really meant "Deliveries Hopelessly Lost".  That may be because they are using the wrong airline.  They are using Alitalia, which stands for "Always Late in Tokyo, All Luggage in America".  They should switch airlines, and use instead SAS, which stands for "Sex and Satisfaction".  That should solve their problems." (General laughter)

Final remarks There are other examples which I may add at a later time.  But I hope that you get the sense of use of humour, tying the speech to current topics, and relating events that the audience identifies with, as some of the key things you should strive for to build a "Vote of Thanks".

Did I try to steal the thunder from the speaker?  By no means, because the speaker laid the groundwork in his speech, he chose the topic and the words, and all I did was pick up some of the pieces and related them to the audience that I knew probably better than the speaker.  And by relating the speaker's pieces to the audience, I summed up the relevance of his speech, and helped to make the speaker's speech memorable to the audience.  That is precisely the function and purpose of the "Vote of Thanks".

A word about doing an Introduction of a Speaker.  Many people who are asked to do an introduction of a speaker will merely take the speaker's resume or curriculum vitae or whatever the speaker has prepared, and basically say something like, "It's my pleasure to introduce our speaker today, Mr/Ms X, who will speaker on the subject of XX.  Mr/Ms X is ...(and then proceed to read the speaker's resume, starting with his current title, and running through his/her past positions and/or achievements.)  Without further ado, let's welcome Mr/Ms X."  Or the introducer might say something like, "Our speaker today really needs no introduction...(and then proceed to read the resume)..."

Pretty straighforward, and quite easy to do.  But, let me suggest that when you are asked to do an introduction, you try to do more than just read the speaker's resume.  In a subtle way, you should try to answer, in a succinct and brief manner, these two questions:

1.  Why is it important that the speaker is here today to speak to this audience?

2.  And what is it about the speaker that makes him/her deserving of the audience's attention, to listen to this particular speaker?

The first question gives importance to the subject and the second question gives importance to this speaker.  You as the introducer of the speaker should answer those two question in two or three brief sentences.  Thus, your introduction speech should take the form of the following:

     -  I am honoured to be able to introduce today, Mr/Ms X, who is (title or position and 1 - 2 prior positions)

     -  I understand that he/she will talk to us about (subject of speech), which is particularly relevant because ...

     -  Because of the speaker's experience in this field, he will share with us a unique perspective, etc...

     -  Let's welcome Mr/Ms. X.

Every speaker deserves an introduction, so the phrase "The speaker needs no introduction" should not be used.  The other commonly heard phrase "Without further ado..." is overused, and if you think carefully about that phrase, you might begin to think that the phrase doesn't even belong in an introduction.  The introducer is basically saying, "Well, I am not going to delay you any further..."  or "I'm not going to continuing rattling on with inconsequential remarks...", so let's get on with it.  But up to that point, the introducer has been giving the audience a lot of "ado's" so he's going to stop doing that.  So, why give the audience a lot of "ado's" in the first place.  Say something of consequence in introducing the speaker, and you as the introducer will not need to say the phrase "Without further ado...".  As the Nike ad says, just do it, and welcome the speaker up to the podium or lecturn.