An hourglass signalling that there is very little time left to prepare for a speech.

How to Prepare for a Speech When You Have No Time to Prepare?

It happens more often than we are ready for – you get notified just moments before that you are required to speak in front of a large audience…and you have no time to prepare for your impromptu speech!

There are two options here – back out by excusing yourself saying that this is too last minute, or tough it out and go for it anyway, knowing fully well that even the worst situation isn’t really that bad.

In case you have been in this situation and have agreed to give that last-minute speech, this article is for you.

I have found myself in this situation a few times. Two moments that stand out are my graduation and my grandfather’s funeral. I was informed that I had to speak to a crowd of hundreds of people just moments before the event.

I am by no means a professional speaker, but here are some things that helped me do a decent job at delivering these speeches when I had very little time to prepare:

The Mindset

don't panic if you are supposed to speak without preparing

When you’re asked to give a talk and have no/very little time to prepare for it, the natural reaction is to panic (especially if you’re not a frequent speaker). But this often makes things worse. Instead, just do your best with what you have.

The important thing to remember here is that your audience is rooting for you. They want you to succeed on stage. If they are aware of the fact that you haven’t been given enough time to prepare, they’ll sympathize with you and are fine if the speech is not a very flamboyant one.

In fact, this is the best time to keep your speech simple and short. That being said, I’ve seen speakers go up on stage and actually announce that they haven’t received enough time to prepare. The reason NOT to do this is that it immediately makes the audience aware of the fact that this talk is not well thought out and will probably have a flimsy message.

So, assume that your audience knows that you did not have time to prepare, but make it look like you have prepared enough and really do have a worthy message to share.

Most importantly, don’t let yourself get in your own way.

Many times, we do indeed have something really worthwhile to share (they would not have asked you to speak otherwise) but we tend to drag ourselves down by getting overwhelmed – How can I write a speech in such a short period of time, people will know I am underprepared, what if they think my speech is stupid – all these thoughts will rush through your mind.

The best thing to do is to work with what you have and try to shut off those bad thoughts.

A great way to approach this if you’re feeling overwhelmed is to use the process people with addiction use – to take it one day at a time. In this case, taking it one moment at a time can really help. It’ll make the entire process feel much more doable.

Writing the speech

When preparing for a last-minute speech or presentation, don’t write out a full-fledged speech. Just write down your pointers. Memorizing a speech in such situations can turn out to be a disaster unless you have a really good memory.

In my case, I prefer just noting down the bullet points of what I want to speak about in a simple flow.

Don’t try and put in too many facts or numbers. This will make it harder for you to remember your speech. Instead, tell a story.

Share an incident that you have faced or a story you’re already familiar with. This will make it much easier for you to remember your speech and even play around with some improvisation when you’re on the stage since you’re already familiar with the topic. It eases the burden of memorizing your speech.

Basic Outline for Last-Minute Speeches

If you’re struggling with “what do I write”, try the question approach. This basically means that you write down the questions that your audience might have on the topic. Jot down some questions such as

  • What is the key message I want to communicate?
  • Why is this message important to them?
  • Does the audience know who I am?  

There a lot more you can add. But this should act as a decent guideline on how to outline your last-minute speech.

As you answer these questions, you will keep getting more and more ideas for what to include in your speech. After you’re done with this, try and package the content in a way that best suits the audience you are addressing.

Another way to put this is the PREP method: Point, Reason, Example, Point.

This is what it stands for and what each abbreviation means:

P – Point of view

Start your speech with what your view is – what are you going to be talking about? For example, “Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead from the food that they eat.”

This is from Jamie Oliver’s TED talk Teach every child about food.

Right from the beginning the speaker has set his point of view and the audience knows what the talk will be about – it’s going to be a hard-hitting talk which talks about the truth of the American diet and how it affects children.

R – Reason

Give a reason for your point of view. Why are you talking about what you are talking about? State your reason for holding this point of view or idea.

For example, building on Jamie Oliver’s talk, he goes on to say “I profoundly believe that the power of food has a primal place in our homes that binds us to the best bits of life.” He then goes on to talk about why the food landscape of America is down and how it’s affecting the children.

It’s a beautifully structured speech and I must recommend that you watch it!

E – Example

Now it’s time to support your talk with something that actually happened or an analogy that the audience can relate to so they can digest and more easily consume what you are talking about.

Jamie Oliver went on to give examples of countries that are suffering from bad health due to the food they eat along with real-life examples of children who are going to live much shorter lives due to the food they eat. He said, “I want to show you a picture of my friend, Britney. She’s 16 years old. She’s got 6 years to live because of the food that she’s eaten.”

P – Point of view

This is all about the circle effect which I will talk about in more detail later. But stating the same point of view that you did in the beginning is a powerful way to emphasize your point or idea further.

Oliver ended his talk with a wish which stated, “I wish for everyone to help create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.”

See how he re-stated what he first spoke about – the talk is still about food, diet and children and how this statement is used to further emphasize his idea.

Also, try and see if you can take material from any previous speeches or presentations you have delivered. Since you would already be familiar with that content, it will be easier to deliver it again.

These methods can help you speak on topics handed to you on the spot as well.

The Delivery

The best thing to do is, as always, keep it short and simple. Only talk about what’s important and cut out the jibber-jabber. Simplicity is not only applicable to your speech content.

Even your body language and speech tonality can be very simple. This is the best approach, in my opinion, when you don’t have time to prepare. Try not using your hands too much and it’s alright if you just stand in one place. Keep it simple and your delivery will be just fine.

When you deliver the speech, try to not mumble and start off with ‘ums’, ‘ahs’ or ‘so’. Just start your speech the way you have prepared. It will make you look more ready for your speech (even if you are not).

While carrying notes is not usually recommended, if you have less time to prepare for your speech, don’t hesitate to carry a card with your bullet points jotted down on it. Don’t use it if you don’t need to. But it’s best to keep it with you in case you do need some sort of reference.

It’s frightening to know that you have to speak in front of a crowd especially when you have very little time to prepare. But if there is one thing to take away from here it’s this: Don’t say no to the opportunity!

Yes, there are high chances of messing up, but I can say from personal experience that each time I have been thrown into these situations, even if the experience has been awful, I’ve come out as a much stronger speaker.

Hrideep Barot is the founder and chief writer at Frantically Speaking, a portal to help people learn everything about public speaking. The purpose of franticallyspeaking.com is to showcase the lessons that he has learned (and still learning) from his numerous stage experiences and mentors over all these years.