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Eyes and ears on you: the pressure to say something intelligent on the spot.

A meeting where someone turns to you and says: So, what’s your opinion? A virtual team-building session where the host asks everyone to share a personal experience. A networking event where you are expected to mingle and initiate conversations with the other participants. If you find spontaneous speaking nerve-racking, you are not alone!


The pressure to say something intelligent in an ad-hoc situation can be stressful, even more so when you are in unfamiliar surroundings and English is not your first language.

Spotlight with Writing: Eyes and Ears on You

The spotlight is on you.


Sometimes, it is someone else – a webinar host, a boss, a fellow conference attendee – who directs the spotlight toward you: What do you think? Suddenly, all eyes and ears are on you. You need to come up with a fast witty response or intelligent comment.


The pressure can be particularly intense when you feel that your contribution to the conversation is going to be judged by others in the room. You are worried that your response will impact your acceptance or your overall success.

You want to step into the spotlight but can’t.


Other times, you might actually want to step into the spotlight.


  • Maybe you’re in a meeting and would like to make an important contribution.

  • Maybe you would like to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you at a conference.

  • Maybe you want to share a funny story at a networking breakfast.


But first you must find the right words, put together the sentences. By the time you have your comment ready to go, the conversation has moved on and the moment has passed. That can be frustrating.

Spontaneous speaking: the double challenge for non-native speakers.


Native and non-native English speakers alike feel uncomfortable with spontaneous speaking. Both feel the pressure to say something intelligent, something of substance to be perceived as knowledgeable and smart.


However, as a non-native speaker, you face additional difficulties. Your brain is not just working hard on coming up with something intelligent to say, but also on the language to express it accurately and clearly.

Ways to get more comfortable (and faster) in spontaneous situations:


Expand your toolkit

If you feel (or know) that you’re lacking language skills, then you need to tackle that. There’s no way around it: You require advanced language skills to communicate your thoughts confidently and effectively in spontaneous situations. Language is your tool, and you need to know how to use it - and expand it to serve your purpose.


If you feel that your language skills are pretty good, but you are still stressed out about spontaneous conversations, here are two more tips for you:

Strategic event preparation: anticipate and practice.

Meeting Agenda

It may sound paradoxical, but you can prepare for spontaneous speaking situations. That’s because in our professional lives, many situations are actually not as spontaneous as we perceive them to be.

Whether you are going to attend a meeting, join a webinar, or visit a trade show, think of topics and questions that are likely to arise at the event. Here are a few examples:

  • Before the meeting, look over the agenda. Think about points you may want to make or questions that may come up.

  • Before you visit the trade show, think about ways to approach exhibitors and ask them questions. If you're an exhibitor, you and your team can agree on speaking points and practice them before the event.

  • Before your networking event, think about questions people may ask you if they hear that you are from a different country. Research appropriate small talk topics.

Being prepared is not just about language. It’s also about cultural awareness. Invest time in learning more about relevant cultural norms, practices, and conversation topics. Anticipate situations. Practice different scenarios with a fluent speaker, a communication coach, or in conversations with yourself (but make sure to rehearse out loud and not just in your head). Knowing that you are prepared can lower your anxiety, boost your confidence, and allow you to be more present in the situation. And that brings me to my next recommendation:

Tune in to the conversation.


Do you remember back in school, when you were in class and the teacher was calling on students, asking them to give an answer to a question he had posed? Maybe your teacher followed the seating arrangement in the room. Maybe she called out names in alphabetical order. Whatever the mode, you probably did not really listen to what your classmates said. You were focused on formulating your own answer in your brain. Don’t do that! 


Once you’re at an event, be attentive and listen. Listening (rather than preparing answers in your head) can seem daunting but has several benefits. As you direct your full attention to what’s going on around you, your focus shifts away from your worries about what to say and how you’ll sound. And you don’t really have to worry because you are prepared, right?


Listening to your conversation partners will also give you impulses for your own comments. In addition, you will be less likely to miss or misunderstand what others say and therefore less likely to respond with something that doesn’t relate or make sense.

Spontaneous speaking can be pretty scary. But there are ways for you to increase your comfort level, confidence, and performance. Contact me and let’s chat. I would love to help you.


Do you know anyone who would benefit from my tips and insights? Share my blog with them. Thank you!

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