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The Single Most Important Communication Skill: Spontaneous Speaking.

How often do you have the luxury of a script when you engage with others face to face? Barely ever. Spontaneous speaking situations are a constant presence in our everyday professional lives. The pressure – or opportunity – to share our thoughts arises out of the moment, whether we feel ready for it or not.  


Wouldn’t it be great if you could handle spontaneous situations in English with more ease and confidence? Read on to find out more about three essential aspects of successful spontaneous communication - and get some practical tips for challenging moments. 

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Why Are Spontaneous Speaking Skills so Important?

Communication happens. Most of it is unplanned and unscripted. Meetings, negotiations, client interactions, networking events, trade shows, video calls, webinars, and that Q&A session at the end of your presentation – they all have one thing in common: the need to think and act fast to produce responses and comments in real-time.  


Being able to express your thoughts confidently and competently in the moment is crucial.

  • It can significantly impact your professional image and credibility.

  • It can influence decision-making processes and outcomes.

  • It is fundamental for developing productive relationships

  • It empowers you by giving you control over the situation.

  • It can help avoid misunderstandings.

The Discomfort of Silence

In an earlier blog, I wrote about US communication style and how it tends to be a fast-paced back and forth comparable to tennis.  


Americans generally don’t appreciate long pauses. Silence creates discomfort and may even be interpreted as disapproval or disagreement. As a result, not giving an immediate response could be misinterpreted. That’s why it’s important to respond to your conversation partner without too much of a delay and keep the conversation flowing.

Spontaneous Speaking is Not Just About Talking

Handling spontaneous situations effectively is not just about what you say. It starts with what others say to you, what you hear, and what you understand. As you work on becoming better at off-the-cuff speaking, focus on these three aspects:

1. Cultural Intelligence: 

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Start with building cultural intelligence. That includes learning more about other cultures, appreciating different values, gaining insights into your communication partner’s expectations, understanding how others may perceive you, and developing self-awareness.  


These insights will be immensely useful in spontaneous situations. They can help you... 


  • ensure that you communicate appropriately, without offending or disrespecting your counterpart.  

  • interpret correctly what others say and understand what they mean.  

  • adjust your own way of communicating to be more effective and tailor your messages to be more on point.  


Build your cultural knowledge and awareness over time so you can access it in the moment and use it to your advantage.  

2. Listening to Understand: 


Producing instant responses in a foreign language is hard. Your mind fills with panic-driven questions: What do I say? How do I say that in English? What if I make a mistake? What will others think? What if they don’t understand me? 


That’s a problem because these questions shift your focus from your conversation partner to yourself. As a result, you may miss important information. What’s more, you may miss crucial emotional cues not expressed explicitly.

Try to listen to understand and learn. Focus on your response after you have gained clarity on what the other person has said, means, and wants. 


3. Speaking Fluently: 


Becoming fluent in a foreign language takes a lot of work. You can practice with anyone who is proficient in English, such as a friend or colleague at work.  


For more targeted practice and better results, I recommend working with an expert who can give you straightforward feedback and guidance. While friends or colleagues may be fun to practice with (and, yes, free of charge), they may not be comfortable giving honest feedback for fear of damaging the relationship.  


A language or communication coach, on the other hand, will give you neutral yet effective feedback. They are not restrained by things like friendship or hierarchy.

In addition, they can better identify your weaknesses and help you develop techniques and strategies to overcome them. 

Four Practical Tips for Challenging Spontaneous Situations


woman on laptop who doesn't know what to say

Has it ever happened to you that someone asked you for your opinion and your mind went blank? You couldn't think of anything to say? That's pretty stressful.

The best way to handle this challenge depends on the situation, but here are four things I recommend.  


  • Don’t start rambling. If you really don’t know what to say, don’t just start to blabber and say anything. In a professional setting, that can harm your credibility. You are better off using a technique to buy time, as described in the next three points.

  • Act a bit confused and ask the speaker to rephrase the question. This is a great piece of advice described by Deborah Grayson Riegel and Ellen Dowling in their book "Tips of the Tongue" (2017). It is particularly useful for non-native speakers or for anyone who feels that the question they received may be hostile or critical. You can say something like:

    • I didn't quite understand the question. Would you please say it again/another way?

  • Repeat the question back with your own words. As you paraphrase what the other speaker said or asked, your mind can start working on a response. You can start with an introductory phrase such as: 

    • So you're asking if....

  • Ask for time: Often, we use a combination of two or three phrases to buy time. First we acknowledge what our conversation partner said and then we ask for a moment to think about it:  

    • Thank you for that question. Let me think about that for a moment.  

    • That’s a very interesting question. I need a bit more time to think about this.  

    • Wow, that’s a tough one. Honestly, I’ve never thought about that before. 

Being anxious about spontaneous situations is common - but, with effort and patience, you can master this skill and become comfortable and confident with unscripted speaking!

I help people boost their communication skills, so they can feel strong and confident – rather than insecure – in spontaneous speaking situations, by working with them on concrete strategies and skills. Contact me if you would like to find out more! I look forward to hearing from you! 

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