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Should speakers wing it?

Thoughts on purely extemporaneous speaking styles.
Jan | 20 | 2015


Jan | 20 | 2015

While I’m not a formal, dues-paying member, I do belong to the Facebook group for the National Speakers Association. I often find the discussions valuable, although there’s a good bit of overlap, especially among newbies. I agree with the majority of the comments from true professionals. When I’m so inclined, I’ll chime in with my own thoughts.

This is one of those times.

From a recent group discussion on the merits of handing out materials to your audience ahead of time:


This made me think about the merits of “winging it”, which I’ll define as “speaking in a very extemporaneous style.” Note that “winging it” doesn’t mean avoiding the use of notes altogether. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with occasionally referring to notes, both written and/or digital.

I’ve been to more conferences than I can count, and here’s the brutal truth: Very few speakers can successfully pull off a completely impromptu talk. There are just too many dangers, including:

  • Will you omit a topic that you meant to cover?
  • Will you mention things that you should not have mentioned? (I always ask my speaking clients if anything is off-limits.)
  • Will you forget to define a key term?
  • Will you go out of order?
  • Will you adhere to your time limit? (This is a huge pet peeve of mine. It’s disrespectful to everyone at the conference.)
  • Will you end too soon?
  • Will you set the right tone with your audience?

Many people recognize the dangers of a completely unstructured talk and overcompensate. As a result, their talks come off as overly rigid, their humor contrived. And forget about eye contact and genuine enthusiasm. I’ve seen people routinely read off of their slides for the duration of their talks. Others regularly turn their backs to their audiences. These are big no-no’s, as Scott Berkun points out in his excellent book.

Very few speakers can successfully pull off a completely impromptu talk.

Is a talk structured or unstructured? In fact, this is a false dichotomy. Structure is not a binary, and there are degrees. I’d describe my own style as a mix of composition and improvisation. I know what I’m going to say, but not necessarily how I’ll say it—and this is a good thing. Before I spoke at Zappos last July, I walked right into the middle of a water balloon fight. (Hey, it’s Zappos.) Rather than play the diva, I chuckled, grabbed a towel, and worked that misadventure into my opening. In the process, I set the tone with the audience from the get-go: I had a sense of humor, and I wasn’t going to bore them for an hour.

In this way, I take my cues from a Neil Peart drum solo. The Professor famously leaves room for him to “riff” within the context of a ten-minute solo.

Simon Says

There’s no one key or secret to dazzling an audience. Successful speakers rehearse, even if they’ve given a particular talk many times before. The best talks are the ones that naturally flow. Following a structure is not the same as being stiff.  Leave yourself room to breathe.

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