The Power of Extemporaneous Speech

The Power of Extemporaneous Speech

(I've decided to devote the next two posts to Communication Excellence. So, here is "Communication Week", Post #1 of 2!).

There are different approaches to giving a speech to an audience. Quite often, speakers default to the approach that best fits their insecurities. The major problem with this approach is that public speaking is not about you ... it's about your audience. What will serve them best? At the end of the day, if they don't understand or remember your message, it's not their faultit's yours.

So, let's briefly survey three approaches to convey your message.


At one extreme (far right) is the "manuscript speaker," who essentially reads his or her notes aloud. Of course, as this inhibits good eye contact with the audience, it triggers nap time for most listeners. In fact, the "manuscript speaker" will seldom use any of the delivery skills at their disposal. They won't move out from behind the podium (where it feels safe). Their head will be tilted downward (reading the script), submerging the clearest conduit of empathy and expression: the face. While reading their script, they're unable to "read" their audience's feedback – because their eyes are glued to their notes.  Below is a classic example of the problem of the "manuscript speaker." [Warning: some inappropriate language.]


At the polar extreme (far left) is the "impromptu speaker," who thinks every speech is an audition for Whose Line Is It Anyway? He considers himself the king of wing. "What? I've got a speech to deliver next week? I'll just wing it!" Such lack of preparedness isn't a virtue – it's a communication vice, a character flaw. I ask: "Do you care enough about your audience to think this through beforehand?" Let's hope so, for everyone's benefit.

Below is the seminal example of impromptu implosion ...

Impromptu Gone Wrong


Somewhere between these extremes is what I call "extemporaneous" speech. It is neither manuscript nor impromptu performance. Extemporaneous speaking is natural and winsome, because it is a true blend of preparedness and conversational language. It breathes life into a speech, as the mind is creating in the moment. It turns static photos into movies and paint-by-number canvases into Mona Lisas.

Extemporaneous means you don't memorize all (or even most) of your words in advance. Let me ask a question: when you go on a first date, do you memorize in advance everything you're going to say? Of course not! However, it doesn't mean you don't prepare beforehand (just a little) about what subjects you'd like to discuss.

Similarly, the extemporaneous speaker does his or her homework. They probably use notes that show the outline of the talk. Relevant quotations (that are hard to memorize) would also be printed in their notes. Further jottings might include key words to emphasize, phrases to trigger important stories and illustrations, and scribbles in the margin to enhance delivery (e.g. "remember to smile" or "pause 4 seconds after saying this").

Final tip: always remember that the best speeches feel like conversations. Despite what you've thought, speeches really are not monologues. They're dialogues. While you speak verbally, the audience responds back to you non-verbally. Give and take. For this, extemporaneous is the way to go!