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ad-libbing tips, colin stone speaking during training course

Ad-libbing: three tips on doing it well

How many times a day are you ad-libbing?

Let me rephrase.

How often each day do you know exactly what you’re going to say?

If, like me, it’s less than 10% then congratulations: you’re an ad-libber.

Yet, if I told you to make a speech without a script, you’d think I was mad.

Most of our lives are spent ad-libbing.

But put us in a professional environment or a high-stakes situation, and we struggle to remember how to speak.

This is entirely normal.

Let’s dive into why we ad lib, and how to do it well.

Two types of presenters

two types of presenter, ad-libbing tips, men sit on a podium

You’ll find there are two types of presenters when it comes to ad-libbing.

Those who do it too much and those who ought to be doing more.

This is essentially fight or flight.

Fight: these speakers go on endless tangents and lose track of the original point.

Flight: these speakers find themselves caught in the headlights and struggle to make coherent points.

Blame nerves for both of these responses, by the way.

So how do we sort it?

The good news is: it’s easier than you think.

It all starts with preparation.

1. Prep, prep and more prep

conference speaking tips, colin stone and andrew mcfarlan on stage in dallas

When we’re prepared, we instantly feel better about the task ahead.

Preparing an ad-libbed story may seem counterintuitive, but this is different than writing a word-for-word script.

Simply make bullet points to remind yourself of where an ad-libbed extract would assist you.

For example, let’s say you want to make a point about the value of effective communication.

You can labour the point until you’re blue in the face, but a personalised story will work far more effectively.

So take a note about a time when effective communication benefitted you.

My colleague Colin did this recently when he was asked on the spot about speaking to large audiences.

In his notes, he’d written the word DALLAS in giant, bold letters.

His response went something like this:

“Let me tell you about the most recent occasion I spoke to a large audience.

“It was in Dallas, Texas. There were more than 300 people in the crowd.

“I had to work really hard to slow down my pace, and use the stage effectively.

“It’s vital in a setting like that to ensure every audience member feels involved.”

He was ad-libbing from start to finish. 

And all it took was a one-word prompt that he’d prepared earlier.

2. Make your notes clear

media interview tips, a list and b list, pink elephant communications

Our notes often become a scribbled, scrawled mess.

Tiny handwriting and long sentences which become illegible under pressure.

It seems like common sense, but clear bullet points are far better.

They’re a great way of handling your thoughts without going into much detail.

It allows you to remember where you want to go and what you want to say while maintaining the freedom to ad-lib.

For some, imagesare an even better reminder.

You could draw a little picture or insert a photograph into your notes to jog your memory.

Take your audience to the very location you’re looking at.

3. Think of the pub rule

ad-libbing tips, a row of keg dispensers

Ad-libbing is simply repeating your own take or sharing your own thoughts.

You already know how to do these things.

It’s about doing it in a way that communicates your message to your audience.

Think of it as telling a story to your friend in the pub.

What are the main points? Why do they need to know?

This is your opportunity to be casual and chatty.

It’s a chance to be yourself and, since you’ve been doing that your whole life, you’re sure to be good at it.

Slow down that heartrate by breathing deeply.

Remind yourself to speak slowly and succinctly.

Keep your notes in one hand for support.

And, of course, if you’d like our help with your ad-libbing, email us today.


Maxine Montgomery is Media & Communications Trainer at Pink Elephant.

Read more about her here.


Photos in Ad-libbing tips blog by Pink Elephant Communications and Pixabay.
Ad-libbing tips blog written by Maxine Montgomery.
Ad-libbing tips blog edited by Colin Stone.

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