Let's get it out there at the start: extempore speaking is impressive. Speaking in public is tough, but doing so with minimal notes - and certainly without a script - is a high wire act that makes you memorable. Energy, spontaneity and creativity are the components of great delivery and apparently "off the cuff" oratory feeds nicely into all three. I can also confirm that most politicians can speak extemporaneously, as can a fair percentage of taxi drivers, though many would choose not to for a conference keynote unless they were cock-sure of their material.
Note the adjective "apparently". Unless you are driving a cab extempore speaking does not mean "done without preparation" despite what the Oxford dictionary says. In the same definition my online reference tome also says "he recited the poem extempore". Even Derren Brown can't recite something he hasn't yet learned.
I like the Latin derivation "out of the time" or "on the spur of the moment". If you want a modern take look no further than this weekend's Ryder Cup where golfers under extreme pressure will try to stay "in the moment" and focus on the job at hand. To do that effectively you need plenty of the right kind of practise, rather than no preparation. If you want to be an amateur speaker or golfer go down the "done without preparation" route if you fancy but you won't make the team.
Here's the good, the bad and the ugly from Miliband's Conference keynote:
The Good: The act of "saying it as you think it" is always good. Extempore speaking makes you appear clever, allows you to respond to circumstances, shows flexibility, affords movement, allows you to answer questions and to involve the audience. Unfortunately in the context of a big audience keynote only the cleverness reason is relevant and we already know Miliband is super-smart.
The Bad: Delivery is important, you have to be "in the room" when you are in the room and learning to deliver it in the moment is terrific. But preparation is the foundation and you have to give us what you promised. It is really bad to step from the podium having missed sections of your keynote, especially if we all have a copy of it. You can get away with leaving out a line or two: it's not Hamlet. But immigration and the deficit not getting a slot led to half Miliband's time on Radio Four's Today programme being about the delivery of his speech and his technique, not the content.
The Ugly: None of this need have happened and the omissions were not the fault of Miliband's delivery method. He had some notes on the lectern, they were just very poor. I delivered a series of seven four hour big audience seminars on The Perfect Pitch in June in the same room, to the same client. Every week the client had something different they wanted me to deliver, a tweak, an instruction or an announcement. Something important to them. Here are three ways to deal with delivering the essentials for you, me and Ed.
1) Have notes that work for you. It matters not whether they are typed (use a big font, in bold, and ensure it's all well spaced), written (black Sharpie, write large, be able to decipher it), or spider-brainstorm-fashion (but a picture paints a thousand words, be careful...).
2) Have cue cards. Write words or phrases on a piece of A4 paper in marker pen. "DEFICIT" "IMMIGRATION" "STOP SAYING TOGETHER". Were none of his special advisors listening? This was not a dolly 15 minutes to a local association, it was on the telly! Was it beyond the wit of someone to give Miliband a nudge via an A4 piece of paper and ask him to stick a minute or two in on some key issues?
3) Use a flipchart. Okay, this one is not entirely serious but for the rest of us preparing a few flipcharts in advance can concentrate the mind. Guess what happens when you turn over a page and see the word "DEFICIT" writ large?
Most important political speeches are delivered from scripts, or extensive notes. The stakes are too high to do otherwise. Obama's "A More Perfect Union" is as tightly scripted as the speaker was tightly wound on delivery. But it's not really a choice between extempore or scripted, it's more nuanced than that. Alasdair Campbell says that it was the ten per cent Blair put in near delivery, or during delivery, that made him a great orator. But he was always scripted for the big ones. If you want to hear a speech that is scripted but where the speaker leaves his notes and uses the extempore method to great effect, especially towards the peroration, look no further than Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial.
Ed has a dream, but I guess this is the only time King and Miliband will be mentioned in the same article.
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