Tag Archives: impromptu speaking

Bush quote 2

Sticking the Landing

Because any modern language is functionally an open-ended system–there are nearly infinite ways to mix words to convey meaning–it’s remarkable that we can (mostly) express what we mean.

We’ve all seen videos of planes landing on a windy runway:  Seemingly down. . . then not quite down. . . veering to the right and then the left. . . and finally down. The phrase “sticking the landing” is common to both pilots and gymnasts.  Both want to land in the right spot. Verbalizing thoughts on the fly is a cognitive version of the kind of precarious act.  Successfully explaining ourselves in the space of mere seconds is a marvel of mind-body coordination.  Every word reflects a choice.  Do we go for a literal description, or one that is metaphoric?  Should our words be a first person report, an act of truth telling? How much detail is enough?  And will a colorful word quickly plucked out of the air give the wrong impression?

Especially in front of others we are conscious that the laydown of language that is still to come needs a attention. We pre-verbalize. And most of us are remarkably good at what then follows most of the time.

To sense this fluency-on-the-fly watch a four or five year old explain themselves.  We can almost see their little brains putting it all together.  Eyes get wide and their focus becomes intense as they search for the right combinations of words, grammar and syntax.  It’s always a treat to see grandkids find pathways for their ideas.

Kids acquire this capacity at the speed of a SpaceX rocket. Language is a culture’s gift to it’s young.  But fluency itself is a life-long quest, mixing memory and experience with synergies that grow with larger vocabularies and refined understandings of how to use them.

Some of this prowess  begins to ebb in old age.  And some among us never fully master the task of linking impulses to coherent expressions. Consider, for example, the rhetoric of a few presidents.  George W. Bush was known for coming close to what he wanted to express, sometimes settling on phrasing or dependent clauses that trailed some loose ends.  As he knew, the results could be funny.  Here’s a few Bushisms from their official custodian, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg:

1. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

2. "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."—Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000

3. "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"—Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 20004. 

4."Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."—Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004

“Sticking the landing” can be hard for all of us.  Using the wrong acronym, I once explained to students that “unexploded IUD’s” were a particular problem in places like Afghanistan. They humored me by not bursting out in laughter.

What is interesting about presidents is that they leave a clearer record of their rhetorical misdeeds.  Listen to a collection of Trump teleprompter gaffes that he tries to correct by doing what amounts to some freelance riffing after the wrong word has been said.  He usually works sideways to get back up to the term he intended to use, like a jazz musician trying to turn a wrong note into a useful improvisation.


President Obama was more conscious of word choice. He often spoke like an academic, sometimes using tedious pauses while he searched his brain for the phrase or word. To achieve this kind of fluency, Obama had to speak more slowly than the human norm of about 200 words a minute.  He gave up a certain glibness for the advantages of more precision.  It’s now apparent that some of us miss the rhetoric of such a laser mind.  Others relish the circus of visceral responses that now issue from the West Wing.

Even so, let’s not let the impurity of political rhetoric taint what remains a miraculous capability spread far and wide across the species.

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“Making a few comments” in the spur of the moment is right up there in the pantheon of nightmares with snake handling.

Among communication skills, the ability to create an interesting and coherent message ‘on the fly’ varies greatly from person to person.  In jazz, a “riff” is phrase or entire solo, usually made up on the spot. In public speaking the same kind of moment may be called an “impromptu speech,” which is its own category in oratorical competitions.  In a theater or club we know the same kinds of instant exchanges as improvisations. Some actors are great at it.  Others need a script to find their way.  But there can be no doubt that skill at improvisation is a significant gift for a musician or actor. One of the high points of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is a tryout where an actress is asked to tell any story. The riff that results is the poignant song “Audition,” a tale about her Aunt’s years in Paris, and a turning point in her life.

I once knew an academic colleague whose role required a lot of introductory comments for speakers and panels. He was confident he could produce insights on demand. But what usually came out was a stew of badly mismatched ingredients. “Winging it” was not his strength, and made worse by his tendency to lose track of the time. I’ve also known another academic who spoke as if he were reading prose polished on a diamond lathe. No syllable was out of place.  He was mesmerizing, and also the source of more than a little envy.

Jazz gets its energy from the creative riffs of its performers; public speaking gets it’s notorious dread from the same requirement. “Making a few comments” in the spur of the moment is right up there in the pantheon of nightmares with snake handling.

 Don’t memorize your comments. We now expect that a public presentation is a form of “heightened conversation.”

Interestingly, ancient orators were not that different.  Preparing for the moment of delivery was something to stew over. But their solution was to memorize their remarks. Any figure in Greece or Rome with aspirations in civil affairs needed to be able to commit long speeches to memory.  Words and their effects mattered that much.

But memory is now considered “the lost canon” of rhetoric. We no longer teach it. And some of us suspect that our toasters probably have more RAM memory than we possess. In addition, most of us are not very interesting when reciting ideas that have been over-rehearsed. Think of a poem from 7th grade whose meaning has been drained away because it was learned by rote. Those who are especially good at this kind of thing we call “actors.”

The trick is to split the difference. Think about what you want to say at an event where you will be called up. Take and use few notes (never a manuscript). Don’t memorize your comments. We now expect that a public presentation is a form of “heightened conversation.” A few non-fluencies that creep into our remarks will not matter, if the trade-off is the impression that we are thinking about what we are saying as we say it.