Updated: Sep 23, 2020
This article follows on from an article I wrote about using the five why's to help solve the roots of your English learning problems. A prevalent problem amongst the people I speak with and past students is they lack the confidence and feel too embarrassed to talk when called upon in work meetings. Sometimes they feel frustrated after turning down the opportunity to offer their expert opinion because they were shy or embarrassed to speak. They fear to say the wrong thing, and instead, they say nothing or don't say what they want to say.
Spontaneous speaking refers to any situation where you are asked to speak off the cuff or in the moment. The reality is that you are much more likely to need spontaneous speaking much more than planned speaking, such as in a presentation. For example, you might have to introduce the client to another consultant, or you might need to give feedback or handle questions during a project meeting. These situations occur all of the time.
As I discussed in the last article, the solution to this problem isn't merely to get over your fears and go for it. The problem is more profound than that and therefore deserves more attention. You need to develop a list of actionable countermeasures for the challenge. To know how to arrive at these actionable countermeasures, I recommend reading my previous article to know what I mean.
Let's talk about five possible countermeasures you can take to overcome you being embarrassed and shy to speak up during meetings.
Countermeasure 1: Make a list of the scenarios where you feel uncomfortable speaking up.
Countermeasure 2: Write down 2-3 specific examples that have happened to you recently. Recall what happened, what was said and what did you want to say? Recalling what you wanted to say is the most critical aspect.
Countermeasure 3: With a colleague, mentor or teacher practice role-playing your role in the project meeting. During this role play, write down all the times where you feel stuck then write examples of the vocabulary that you're missing or trying to retrieve. Record yourself using this vocabulary or where possible, ask a native speaker to record themselves saying them. Listen to the recorded examples and find relevant reading and listening material that is similar to these scenarios. Try to find similar projects to build your vocabulary around this.
Countermeasure 4: Practice relevant table topics questions where you take in turns to ask and answer quick-fire questions related to particular topics. This toastmasters tradition is intended to help the speaker develop their ability to organise their thoughts quickly by responding to impromptu questions or issues.
Countermeasure 5: The last countermeasure is about shifting your mindset. The first thing that gets in your way when you need to speak spontaneously is your desire to impress and not say the wrong thing. So we also need to work on shifting your mindset so you reduce the pressure you put on yourself so you can increase your chances of doing well. This pressure is working against you.
To put it simply having such a high-pressure goal is getting in your way of getting there. Rather than striving for greatness, dare just to accomplish the task at hand. Give yourself permission to respond in the moment, rather than get it "right," you can get out of your own way and speak well. See it as an opportunity, not an obstacle - Matt Abrahams.
To do this, you need to practice speaking as often as you can. My suggestion to you is to:
Write down 5 - 10 possible questions that you could be asked on a set of flashcards. It doesn't have to be exact, just something close or relevant that will help you think quickly and in the moment and give you practice in thinking in English. Allowing yourself to think in English helps to train the muscle in a non-stressful situation.
Eg. Can you tell us why there is a delay with the plan submission?
Eg. What are the implications if we change this aspect of the design?
Eg. What are the rules and regulations that might influence this project?
When you find yourself in a spontaneous speaking situation, you have to do two things simultaneously: figure out what to say and how to say it. By practising answering tricky questions that you have no plan for, you get used to the structure in which you should answer the question, and you also get used to thinking on your feet which means to react to events decisively, effectively, and without prior thought.
These structures give you a format for how to present your message. When you become comfortable with the structures, you will be able to respond more quickly to impromptu situations that you're not expecting.
By reframing your problems as opportunities rather than threats, and practising, you can become a more compelling and confident, spontaneous speaker.
If you want to practice your spontaneous speaking with me, or you want some advice, don't hesitate to contact me for a strategy session. Let's make a plan to help you overcome your frustrations.