If it’s true that many people fear public speaking more than death, it’s equally true that businesspeople are condemned to a thousand small deaths in client pitches, in boardrooms, and on stage.

Whether giving an unexpected “elevator pitch” to a potential investor or being asked at the last minute to offer remarks to a sales team over dinner, the demands for a business person to speak with limited preparation are diverse, endless, and — to many — terrifying.

Coauthor of the book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, John Coleman shares several go-to tips from personal encounters for being more comfortable with public, impromptu speaking that you might find useful in your own strive together confidence in addressing an audience:

Define a structure: The worst and most stressful business speeches are those that ramble without purpose. We’d tackle this issue by quickly drafting a structure on a notecard to support our main point — often an introduction, two or three supporting points, and a conclusion. With these on paper, it was easy to fill in the details with stories, examples, and statistics. Grab a napkin, notebook, or the back of a PowerPoint deck and jot down your main argument and some key supporting points. Then fill out the examples and data needed to make those points. Any ambiguity or tendency to ramble evaporate

Put the punchline first: Any presentation should have a clear thesis stated up front so that listeners can easily follow and interpret the comments that follow. Many times business presenters ramble through a speech with the audience wondering to the very end about the point of the comments. Giving a good business speech is not like telling a good joke. Don’t save the punchline for the end.

Remember your audience: All it takes is a few lines to make an audience feel acknowledged and a speech feel fresh. Tie the city in which you are speaking into your introduction. Draw parallels between the organization you’re addressing and one of the stories you tell. Mention someone by name, connecting them to the comments you’re offering. These are small gestures, but they make your remarks more tailored and relevant.

Memorize what to say, not how to say it: How many times have you practiced exactly how to say something in your head then frozen up or completely forgotten in the moment? We’d focus on memorizing key stories and statistics, rather than practicing our delivery. If you spend your time on how to say something perfectly, you’ll stumble through those phrasings, and you’ll forget all the details that can make them come alive. Or worse, you’ll slavishly read from a PowerPoint or document rather than hitting the high points fluidly with your audience. If you know your topic, the words will come.

Keep it short: Blaise Pascal once famously commented, “I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter.” While it seems like the challenge of speaking with limited preparation would be finding enough to say, the opposite is often true. When at a loss for words, many of us underestimate the time we need — cramming in so many stories and points that we run well over our time and dilute our message. No one will appreciate your economy of words more than your listeners, so when in doubt, say less.

There’s no substitute for practice in offering impromptu remarks, and there are many things to consider when preparing for a great talk. But mastering a few basics, like those above, can make these public comments less stressful to prepare and easier for audiences to hear.


This post was originally published on HBR.org in August 2014. TheYoungProfessionalGroup.com takes no credit for the work of the author.

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