“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.