The Faculty of Impromptu Speech, Part 4


From Lectures to My Students: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of The Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle

First Series, Lecture X
By C.H. Spurgeon

Read the series.

I think, too, that a man who would speak well, extemporaneously, must be careful to select a topic which he understands.

This is the main point. Ever since I have been in London, in order to get into the habit of speaking extemporaneously, I have never studied or prepared anything for the Monday evening prayer-meeting. I have all along selected that occasion as the opportunity for offhand exhortation; but you will observe that I do not on such occasions select difficult expository topics, or abstruse themes, but restrict myself to simple, homely talk, about the elements of our faith.

When standing up on such occasions, one’s mind makes a review, and enquires, “What subject has already taken up my thought during the day? What have I met with in my reading during the past week? What is most laid upon my heart at this hour? What is suggested by the hymns or the prayers?” It is of no use to rise before an assembly, and hope to be inspired upon subjects of which you know nothing; if you are so unwise, the result will be that as you know nothing you will probably say it, and the people will not be edified. But I do not see why a man cannot speak extemporaneously upon a subject which he fully understands.

Any tradesman, well versed in his line of business, could explain it to you without needing to retire for meditation; and surely we ought to be equally as familiar with the first principles of our holy faith; we ought not to feel at a loss when called upon to speak upon topics which constitute the daily bread of our souls. I do not see what benefit is gained in such a case, by the mere manual labour of writing before speaking; because in so doing, a man would write extemporaneously, and extemporaneous writing is likely to be even feebler than extemporaneous speech. The gain of the writing lies in the opportunity of careful revision; but as able writers are able to express their thoughts correctly at the first, so also may able speakers.

The thought of a man who finds himself upon his legs, dilating upon a theme with which he is familiar, may be very far from being his first thought; it may be the cream of his meditations warmed by the glow of his heart. He, having studied the subject well before, though not at that moment, may deliver himself most powerfully; whereas another man, sitting down to write, may only be penning his first ideas, which may be vague and vapid. Do not attempt to be impromptu then, unless you have well studied the theme—this paradox is a counsel of prudence.

I remember to have been tried rather sharply upon one occasion, and had I not been versed in impromptu address, I know not how it would have sped with me. I was expected to preach in a certain chapel, and there was a crowded congregation, but I was not in time, being delayed by some blockade upon the railroad; so another minister went on with the service, and when I reached the place, all breathless with running, he was already-preaching a sermon. Seeing me appear at the front door and pass up the aisle, he stopped and said, “There he is,” and looking at me, he added, “I’ll make way for you; come up and finish the sermon.” I asked him what was the text and how far he had gone with it. He told me what the text was, and said he had just passed through the first head; without hesitation I took up the discourse at that point and finished the sermon, and I should be ashamed of any man here who could not have done the same, the circumstances being such as to make the task a remarkably easy one.

In the first place the minister was my grandfather, and, in the second place, the text was— “By grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” He must have been a more foolish animal than that which Balaam rode, if, at such a juncture, he had not found a tongue. “By grace are ye saved,” had been spoken of as indicating the source of salvation; who could not follow by describing the next clause—” through faith,” as the channel?

One did not need to study much to show that salvation is received by us through faith. Yet, on that occasion, I had a further trial; for when I had proceeded a little, and was warming to my work, a hand patted my back approvingly, and a voice said, “That’s right—that’s right; tell them that again, for fear they should forget it.” Thereupon I repeated the truth, and a little further on, when I was becoming rather deeply experimental I was gently pulled by my coat-tail, and the old gentleman stood up in front and said, “Now, my grandson can tell you this as a theory, but I am here to bear witness to it as a matter of practical experience: I am older than he is, and I must give you my testimony as an old man.” Then after having given us his personal experience, he said, “There, now, my grandson can preach the gospel a great deal better than I can, but he cannot preach a better gospel, can he?” Well, gentlemen, I can easily imagine that if I had not possessed some little power of extemporaneous speech upon that occasion, I might have been somewhat ruffled; but as it was, it came as naturally as if- it had been pre-arranged.


The somewhat ironic thought that came to mind when I saw this is that at a basic level, there is no such thing as good impromptu speech, because it requires that one have a sound foundation of basic knowledge in the area. What appears to be impromptu speech is actually the outgrowth of a lifetime of study and experience--or when done by someone who does not have this, it reminds us of the old college proverb, "If you can not blind them with brilliance, you can baffle them with...."

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

CHS pretty much agrees… except that he mostly uses ‘impromptu’ to mean you didn’t specifically prepare for that speaking opportunity—you didn’t know it was coming at that time and place. Yet, he puts a lot of effort into arguing that these moments will happen, so be prepared for them in a general way.

The Greek rhetors of yore used to talk about your copia. Or at least some of them did. I don’t recall which (Edit: somebody says Erasmus). The speaker’s copia is his well of experience, stories, words, concepts… anything he can draw on at any time to be persuasive. CHS seems to be thinking along those lines. Be full of good stuff so you are ready for a door that might open unexpectedly.

It’s useful for quite a bit of life besides preaching.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.