Impromptu Speech: Interpreting Word Prompts (Part 1)
If you’ve ever strolled through a contemporary museum of art and looked at the exhibitions, you may have thought, “What am I looking at exactly?” like this unconventional sculpture by Rachel Harrison titled, “Huffy Howler.” Or perhaps you’ve wondered, “What is this supposed to mean?” We’re pretty sure that the two million people who visited Olafur Eliasson’s monumental artwork, “The Weather Project,” would’ve had similar questions running through their minds as they sat in a mist-filled hallway under a giant glowing orb.
These are the types of questions we want you to ponder when receiving abstract prompts for impromptu. In this article, you’ll learn how to interpret word and picture prompts to create a strong analysis for your speech. First, we’ll focus on word prompts, which can be one of three things:
· One: proper nouns, meaning specific people, places, or things, like Harry Potter, New York, or the Eiffel Tower.
· Two: concrete nouns, which are tangible objects – meaning things you can touch – like a ukulele, lollipop, or a squeaky duck.
· And three: abstract nouns, which include intangible things, such as love, sarcasm, or danger.
Because word prompts are the most open-ended of all types, you have a unique opportunity to exercise your creative muscles. Here are four steps to follow to make the most of your word:
First, begin by defining and describing the word. For an abstract word, it’s important to define it first even if you think the audience already knows what it means. Why? Because words like sarcasm or danger are nuanced, meaning they have subtle differences in their interpretation or expression so it’s best to start thinking of how you can clarify your interpretation for the audience. If you think there are too many definitions, then choose one or two that lead to the most interesting topic areas or that give you the most creative options to work with.
On the other hand, when receiving a proper noun or a concrete noun, there’s usually no need to define the word because there’s generally only one interpretation for the Eiffel Tower or a ukulele. Instead, go into detail about the nature of this word or how the word is used in people’s lives.
Second, broaden your word. You can do this by tagging the word with general categories that it might fall into. For instance, “New York” falls more broadly under the category of “America.” When foreigners think of America, they think of New York. A broad category for “lollipop” would be “children” or “junk food.”
Third, narrow down your word. Consider specific subtopics within the scope of the word. This is useful for prompts that can be talked about in many ways like the word “love.” Maybe you want to focus on a mother’s love for her child, the love people have for their country, or how love can make people do stupid things. The list could go on!
And lastly, craft your thesis. Remember that a thesis statement should be clear, concise, and debatable. Once you’ve broadened or narrowed down your word, think of a potential argument or controversy that is associated with this new analysis. If there’s a proverb or a quote that’s related to your word, don’t be afraid to use it as your thesis! This will save you prep time, but just be sure to mention its origins.
Let’s take the New York example again. We’ve said that people might associate America with this state. Why? Because most foreigners have heard about New York being the location where immigrants fled in hopes of a better life. However, you wouldn’t want your thesis to literally be, “New York is where immigrants dreamed of going to.” This is a fact. Very few people will argue with it. Instead, think about the problems that may have arisen as a result of this fact. For instance, despite coming to America for opportunities, many immigrants still don’t have good standards of living and face racism even today. By understanding the problem, your thesis might sound like this: “The opportunities that New York promises are just a fantasy, not a dream.”
Not too difficult, right? Ah, but we’re sure some of you are thinking, “New York is easy to talk about! There are a lot of problems with it!” Well, your question then is, how do you brainstorm problems for your thesis when your prompt is a concrete word like lollipop or cupcake, which doesn’t have a lot of depth? The answer is - Problems exist everywhere. Go back to strategy two and try to think of more broad categories for your word until you find something that has meaning.
Let’s try it out together with the word “cupcake” as your prompt.
Step one: define and describe the word. The meaning of cupcake is quite clear right? After all, it looks like a cup-sized cake… Great. Move on to step two! How might we broaden the topic? General categories include dessert, pastry chefs, or birthdays. You might have heard the term cupcake also used as a form of endearment, like “How’s my little cupcake doing this morning?” Step three wouldn’t be necessary for this prompt. Why? Because you might be tempted to narrow down the word by thinking about the types of cupcakes, like chocolate or strawberry. This would be a little too specific and make it difficult to construct a compelling thesis.
Instead, zoom back out to your broad categories. What’s the problem with desserts these days? Easy! The fact that they’re too unhealthy. You can disagree with this and have your thesis be: “Cupcakes, like all unhealthy desserts, deserve a second chance.” But say you don’t want to talk about actual cupcakes and would like to take the metaphorical approach. You can choose to work with the broad category of cupcakes as an endearment. Your thesis might then sound like this: “Whether it is a cupcake or a muffin, it’s time we stop referring to women as desserts.”
As you’ve noticed, there are dozens of ways you could interpret your word prompts. Think of these three strategies of describing, broadening, and narrowing as quick guidelines to assist you during prep time. What’s important is that you stay open-minded, whether you’re analyzing a cupcake or a giant glowing orb. In the second part of this article, you'll learn how to analyze picture prompts.