One fine day I was chatting with someone and they happened to state that they were terrible at extemporaneous speaking: “all that last-minute stuff and such.” Whoops! Okay, I know I’m a speech geek, but this is important. Before you can learn to be a better presenter, we have to get some vocabulary straight. “All that last minute stuff and such” is called impromptu speaking, not extemporaneous, and there is a very big difference.
What types of speeches are there, you ask? The most common are:
- Written out verbatim (word-for-word)
- Delivered from memory (usually written out, then memorized)
In the anecdote above, my friend was confusing extemporaneous speaking with impromptu speaking – a common mistake. So let’s look at these forms of speaking a little more closely.
Different presentation methods, different results
Impromptu is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when someone asks you at a meeting to give a report about something and you didn’t know that request was coming — you haven’t pre-prepared a presentation. It’s when you decide at the very last minute to give a toast at a friend’s wedding without any prior preparation or thought. It’s when someone at an event decides to invite you to the podium to say something about someone and you didn’t know the request was coming. It’s what I call “last minute speaking.” Or, as some of my clients liked to do before they met me, “winging it.”
Extemporaneous. This is where you prepare an outline, or speaking notes. You do not write out your presentation word-for-word. You plan and prepare your presentation in advance to the extent to which you know what you are going to discuss, what examples you plan to use, what stories you want to tell, etc. And you have the critical phrases, words and notes needed to keep you on track and jog your memory written in your “Keyword Outline” *(which we’ll cover in more detail later on). When you speak extemporaneously, you are prepared. But because the speech isn’t written out, you can deliver it in a conversational, polished style without sounding like you are reading a speech.
In most circumstances, extemporaneous speaking is the best form of presentation style. It allows you to adapt to your audience, make eye contact and have a strong, competent delivery style, yet you have prepared enough in advance that you stay focused, on track, on time, and you present in an organized, easy-to-follow fashion. This is especially true in speeches where persuasion or motivation is all-important, as it often is in business and legal presentations. This extemporaneous style is used much less in high level political speaking, where every word is analyzed over and over and over again and the speeches are written by someone other than the speaker.
Written out word for word. Yep, it’s just what it sounds like. You write out your speech verbatim and then in most cases, you read it. But repeat after me: There are very few people who can read a verbatim speech well, and they usually have teleprompters. It may sound like an attractive option if you have a little stage fright or are worried about saying anything wrong. The problem with it is that it makes it almost impossible to really connect on a human level with your audience – it tends to result in a very stiff and unnatural delivery, and people will tune you out. So unless you’re running for president and have a teleprompter, I don’t recommend this route. But if you are, and you are using a teleprompter, be sure to practice using it with your speech so you don’t flub up.
Memorized. Some people like to write their speech out word-for-word then memorize it. It’s a risky technique and I’ve only ever seen college level speech and debate students do it well. Even then, it usually sounds stilted and overly rhythmic. The only advantage to this method is that you might cut down on your um’s and uh’s, not to mention including everything you want to say. But it leaves you open to the dangerous possibility that once you begin, the memorization fails you. In that case, you’re often worse off than if you were totally unprepared.
And there are other negatives to this approach:
- You can’t respond to questions during your presentation without risking getting off track or forgetting.
- You can’t make last minute changes based upon last minute knowledge you gain about your audience or happenings at the event.
- As with the verbatim speech above, it’s hard to deliver with sounding stilted.
- Unless you’re 22, it’s pretty hard to memorize a speech if it’s more than a few minutes long.
For those reasons, I don’t recommend the memorization method. I do, however, recommend that whatever presentation method you choose, you make yourself so totally familiar with your introduction and conclusions that they are in effect memorized.
To summarize, to improve your speaking skills, focus on creating extemporaneous speeches, since that’s the most common and most effective method of delivery for most people. Build an effective speaking style based on prior preparation and practice, which is the focus of this blog. But don’t forget about impromptu speaking – we’ll get into some tips about what to do in that case at a later date.