Whether it’s a best-man speech, an account of your department’s activity over the past month or a pitch for new business, if you’re remotely nervous about it, stick to what you planned to say and don’t go ad-libbing.
Even if you’re not nervous, if you’re going to deliver your talk smoothly, you need to rehearse it. Otherwise, however familiar you are with the content, you won’t express yourself as clearly and concisely – and with as much impact – as you will if you have tightened and polished it in rehearsal. But you know that. What I want to discuss today is not the dangers of improvising your whole talk, which are manifold and enormous, but the hazards inherent in adding an aside that you haven’t thought through.
If you’re an experienced public speaker and confident in front of this audience, you may well get away with making an off-the-cuff remark. But it is always a gamble and successful speakers extemporise far, far less often than you might imagine – if at all. What you’re aiming to achieve through practising your talk, as I’ve said many times, is rehearsed spontaneity. Great speakers and comedians frequently appear to be ad-libbing, when in fact each line is carefully honed and rehearsed to sound as if it’s made up on the spot.
There are times when you may be forced to depart from what you planned to say, such as if something unexpected happens or somebody interrupts with a question, comment or heckle. In these situations, it will probably seem odd if you don’t respond in some way. We’ve talked before about elephants in the room and how it can actually be more distracting for the audience if you ignore them than if you name them and, as it were, diffuse them.
However, these are exceptional circumstances and, as long as you’re well prepared, you should generally have no reason to improvise. Particularly if you’re nervous, I strongly recommend you stick to what you planned to say unless you’re confronted by a serious elephant.
Even in a one-to-one conversation, if the other person fails to react to what we’ve said, instinct will usually push us to go further, try to explain better, say more, give more. Multiply that listener by ten, twenty, a hundred and the pressure builds. This is why it’s so vital both to be well prepared (so you know what you’re saying is clear, relevant and sufficient) and to stay grounded. Once you allow nerves to take control of your tongue, there’s no knowing what may come out of your mouth. Most commonly it’s waffle but it may also be a misjudged joke, which either falls flat or inadvertently causes offence. In a negotiation, it may be an offer or concession you didn’t need to make.
By ad-libbing, you’re surrendering all the advantage of having had the chance to weigh your words in advance and choose them carefully. As in so many spheres, an experienced, confident player of the game may take a risk that pays off big-time. But most of us are better off steering clear of the danger zone.