Should Speakers “Wing It”?

Thoughts on purely extemporaneous speaking styles.

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(affiliate link).

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‚ÄĒand 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. (Peart 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.


What say you?





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