Why Thinking On Your Feet Will Trip You UpIn my last post, I wrote about the importance of putting a little bit of yourself into a presentation. This might seem like an exhortation to throw out the script and, in the words of The West Wing, let Bartlet be Bartlet. But it is very far from that, because public speaking is too important to trust to chance.

For many years, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA)  has included in many of its public speaking examinations a requirement for the candidate to deliver an “impromptu” speech before the examiner. This takes the form of a short talk on a topic selected for them, written within a set amount of time immediately prior to the examination. This is a challenging brief, and can really separate the wheat from the chaff.

On the other hand, it is a tad artificial: though it is a great means of testing a candidate’s speech-writing and delivery skills in a way which eliminates the potential for endless rehearsal or unfair coaching, in the real world it is extremely rare to stand up and speak in front of an invited audience having had mere minutes to figure out what to say.

Ordinarily, there will instead have been rather more planning than that. If you walk out onto the stage with very little idea of what to say, or the order in which you wish to say it, your body language will let your audience know. You will seem stressed, nervous and uncertain. You will stumble in your speech, too. You will be unconvincing and unengaging, and those are the two deadly sins of speaking in public!

So planning is crucial. You don’t need to memorise the script, but you do need one to refer to.  If you are to understand both your destination and direction you need a trail of bread crumbs, if you like, that you can use to orient yourself if you become a little lost. Think of your script as a safety net: all that preparation enables you, perhaps counter-intuitively, to be a bit freer on stage.

“Winging it” will usually mean you will never take flight. Reading in a monotone from a script isn’t much better, either; but that is a form of being unprepared, too. Proper preparation means understanding what you want to say, and putting it in a simple structure which both you and the audience will be able to remember. It is about giving you the confidence to go out and there and deliver your presentation in a manner that inspires confidence. And that requires you to have confidence in yourself first and foremost.

Thinking on your feet won’t give you the structure in which you can fully be yourself. Jazz musicians, whose music is based on improvisation, do not just get up on stage and play. They understand key signatures and scales, practice riffs and turnarounds, steep themselves in complex chord theory and the structures of standards. Then they get up and play. Public speaking is rather similar.

So in your rush to “be yourself” or “appear authentic”, don’t go too far. LAMDA may test their students by forcing on them the dreaded impromptu; but your audience will be looking for something very different to an examiner. Proper preparation will give them – and you – what they want.

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