“Hey, we need you to fill a space in our program. This speaker just backed out, see, and it’s too late to find someone outside the organization to fill their space. The presentation needs to be related to Topic XYZ. Don’t worry, you’ll do fine – you’re so good at winging it.”
I shuddered every time I got a request like that – and those requests (or similar) happened more often than I would have liked. The core of the problem was the impression that one’s ability to “wing it” was tantamount to an almost mystical capacity for speaking at length about any topic at any moment with no notice. This is a false impression: “winging it” – aka improvisation – takes practice. It takes huge amounts of practice, as well as a deep knowledge of the topic about which you are improvising.
What improvisation is not is simply cobbling something together out of thin air at the last minute with no real effort.
During a middle eastern music and dance show last night, my dance mentor gave a wonderful summary of how a skilled improvisor works. Middle eastern solo dances are generally improvised. When the dancer is performing with a live musician, it is understood that a significant part of the music will be improvised as well. Dancer and musician play off one another, and the quality of their interaction is a considerable indicator of their level of skill. They are able to do this sort of improvised performance because of their level of understanding of the songs, musical structure, and physical technique they are working with. My mentor used the analogy of a Christmas tree to explain the art of improvisation:
Every year you put up a Christmas tree. The tree is set up in the same place in the house and many of the decorations will be old favourites that are pulled out every December. Instead of the tree looking the same year-to-year, however, it is always different. Ornaments are hung in new places, new decorations are added, and sometimes old ones are left in the box. But the fundamental structure of the tree stays the same. Improvisation is like this. The musician and the dancer can improvise because they understand the underlying musical structure, the beats and rhythms they are working with, and the overall skeleton of the song they are working with. The result is a performance with the technical precision of a choreography and the intensity and passion of spontaneity.
This analogy can also be applied to other forms of performance art. Jazz and blues musicians use their knowledge of songs and specific rhythms to enable jam sessions where different musicians will go on lengthy improvised solos while the others continue to provide the backup sounds. Despite the fact that the solos are not pre-planned, they work within a structure that allows the musician freedom to play while informing the other players when to swoop back in and bring the song back to a cohesive whole. This takes a great deal of knowledge and confidence.
Speakers who develop their improvisation skills follow a similar pattern. They have deep knowledge of the content about which they speak (their song), and they have excellent understanding of speech structure and composition (their rhythm). Because of this, they are able to seemingly pluck fully formed speeches, presentations, and arguments out of the air, much as the dancer and musician appear to perform a carefully choreographed performance piece on the fly.
Here’s the kicker: this takes practise and study – lots of it. Skilled improvised speech requires the speaker to be highly knowledgeable about their chosen topics. Information must be gathered and absorbed. Related subject matter must be absorbed. Opinions need to be formed, vetted, re-formed, and tested. Think back to your university days – that is the kind of study undertaken by many a storied speaker. Equal work must be then put in on speech crafting itself. Having imaginary debates, re-scripting past conversations, studying classical rhetoric, scripting speeches and presentations, studying the techniques of master public speakers, and joining groups like Toastmasters are all ways to practice speech crafting.
Next time you watch someone give a brilliant spontaneous speech or watch a presentation and are mesmerized by the speaker’s skill, don’t chalk up their performance to some innate ability to effortlessly “wing” speeches. Rest assured that they work hard at what they do. They work extremely hard. Successful improvisation isn’t a skill that you do or do not have; it’s built up with hard graft. It is, however, something totally accessible to you and to anyone else willing to put in the work. Once you know your song/topic and rhythm/structure like the back of your hand, you’ll be able to create brilliant improvised speeches as well.