A few years ago I attended my aunt’s memorial service, where anyone was invited to say a few words. I felt the need to tell a quick story that would remind everyone about her contagious enthusiasm for birds. No matter the difficulties in her life, and there were many, she would practically burst with delight at the sight of a bird–any bird!
I am not in the habit of jumping up to speak extemporaneously to vast crowds of people, but I admired my aunt, and wanted to testify to the remarkable resilience of her character.
I might have spoken for 60 seconds, maybe 120, and I felt completely in control because I knew exactly what I was going to say, which was that she once went stratospheric over a wood thrush.
I think people appreciated it, and I certainly felt good that I had pitched in about what a great person my aunt was.
This is a long-winded way to say that, in my experience, extemporaneous speaking can be good if it’s short. If it goes on too long, it tends to lack structure, and collapse in a maze of wandering thoughts. (There are very few people who can make it up as they go along and hold the interest of an audience for an extended period of time.)
You’d think that because we speak extemporaneously–in conversations–every day of our lives, we could do it in front of a crowd, but we can’t. In conversations, we speak in short bursts, and rely on others to help complete our thoughts. But plop us down on stage in front of a hundred people, and we would struggle to be crisp and fluid in our remarks.
Somehow, an audience larger than a few people demands preparation, which almost always means that we will have to practice saying what we want to say.
Thus, we will call our remarks a “talk” or a “presentation” or a “speech” or a “lecture”, not a conversation, and it will come, to a certain extent, from memory. And speech from memory sounds different, feels different, than speech that comes freshly minted from the mind.
Good extemporaneous speaking is a kind of deliberate dis-inhibition that brings a sense of spontaneity and expressiveness. It’s a form of play, of improvisation, as the speaker blazes a novel path through his synapses as he discovers, in real time, what he wants to say
Very few of us can read a speech and hold the attention of a crowd (to read a speech is to bleed a speech), and very few of us can speak extemporaneously for long and hold the attention of a crowd.
So what should we do?
1. If speaking extemporaneously, keep it short and story-like in structure.
2. If speaking at length, prepare a rigorous road map to follow, rehearse aloud until you can look at your audience most of the time, and give yourself license to improvise now and then.
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