Off the cuff, but on the ball

Matt Guarente explains how unrehearsed speeches can sometimes be the most effective.

Picture the scene. You’re a film industry celebrity, appearing at a press conference to endorse a new product. You get up on stage. The audience is hushed. The cameras are poised. And just as you open your mouth to speak, the autocue fails.

In 2014, this nightmare became reality for Transformers director Michael Bay, when he infamously walked off stage after a prompter malfunction and a panicked minute of floundering. And Bay is far from alone in the public meltdown stakes. Just as excruciating was US Presidential hopeful Rick Perry’s 52-second mental block, where he forgot his central policy on national TV and waved goodbye to his election chances.

Do or Die

At worst, speaking off-the-cuff can be a train-wreck. More often it’s stumbling, rambling and repetitive. But when it’s done well, the spontaneity and honesty of an unrehearsed speech can blow people away.

That’s exactly what English National Opera’s new Artistic Director Daniel Kramer achieved in his speech at the after-show party following the first night of Tristan and Isolde earlier this month. Even more impressively, he achieved this under enormous pressure. Kramer’s inaugural show was opening in the midst of a the opera company’s own Wagnerian sturm-und-drang: a £5m public funding cut that caused ructions among the chorus and backstage crew had preceded his appointment, which itself was met with undisguised scepticism following the departure of his predecessor.

So when Kramer jumped onto a chair to address the assembled cast, crew, supporters and aficionados, he had in front of him what Americans refer to as a tough crowd. But by the end of his impromptu speech, he had united the audience in rapturous applause. Why? Because Kramer kept his speech to focused on the basics: the circumstances, his audience and his aim. The result was an impressive combination of structure and dynamism which swept the whole room along with him.

Let’s take a closer look at how he did it.

1 – Know your audience

While moulding your words to your audience might sound obvious, falling back on something that’s worked in the past can be pretty tempting in an impromptu situation. But tired material only results in a tired speech. Kramer avoided this by delivering a highly personal address, establishing an in-the-moment connection with his audience by calling out the people who had made the production a success and inviting the rest of the audience to celebrate them.

Try it: Personalising a speech is simple. Instead of relying on abstract examples, use concrete details (like local places or people) which will resonate with your listeners.

2 – Know your outcome

Good speeches work towards a clear goal, whether that’s to celebrate, to persuade or to sell. Kramer’s speech was an opportunity to thank supporters of the ENO during a very difficult time and to encourage their on-going support. More specifically, he made it accessible: “Right now there is a big difference to giving £22 versus £20. It really changes things. We have people who go and collect the programmes people leave and we sell them again because it makes a difference. Because what the ENO does makes a difference – programs to bring music to everyone who wants to listen, the schoolkids who come to dress rehearsals for free and the tickets we have for every performance for £10. You make a difference.” There is no substitute for a genuinely heartfelt address, particularly when supported by a very clear call to action.

Try it: So you’ve been given 5 minutes notice to “say a few words”. Use the time to write down the single outcome you want your speech to achieve, or even a top line theme on which you can extemporise – such as, ‘make a difference’. This shouldn’t be longer than a sentence, and will help you focus your thoughts.

3 – Know your limits

French intellectual Blaise Pascale once quipped that “I have made this letter long because I’ve not had time to make it shorter”. Being concise is an art. And while people worry about not having enough to say on the spot, the reverse is usually true: lack of preparation lead to waffling.

Kramer’s speech was aware of its context – at an after-show party, no-one wants to listen for very long – he did what he needed to do, and got off his chair

Try it: During your speech, stay aware of the room. If people are getting restless, move on to your next point. And if you start repeating yourself, it’s time to wrap up.

A Learning Curve

At Bladonmore, we are proud to equip global business leaders with the skills they need for their most critical communication moments. And after 14 years in the business, we know there is no substitute for preparation.

But there is something to be learnt from Kramer’s approach to giving a speech at a moment’s notice. Such clarity, energy and inclusivity can make a speech really sing, whether you’ve had months to prepare or just minutes.

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