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The Art Of Ad Lib- Presentation & Media Training

The Art Of Ad Lib

“All ad libs in future MUST be scripted.”

That ironic sign, hanging above the mike in Radio Clyde’s Studio A in Glasgow, had a serious message.

Too many presenters were ad-libbing their way into serious on-air gaffes when I joined the station in 1980.

Ad libs can be crucial in making a point, adding humour or changing the mood of your presentation.

But the very fact that they’re unscripted can cause upset, offence and reputational damage.

So management at my radio station laid down the law with a rule I adhere to wherever possible to this day.

Making ad-lib look natural

ad lib presentation and communication skills training Bill McFarlan and wife.

The skill is in making pre-planned comments in presentations and media interviews LOOK as if they were off the cuff.

My wife and I were asked to present a UK-wide conference in Glasgow this month.

We would have to introduce speakers, mention sales items, announce lunch arrangements and draw competition winners from a drum.

So we asked for a list of all the elements in advance.

We then wrote as much as we possibly could well before the conference started.

The genuine ad libs were then reduced to a minimum.

Preparing your presentation

ad lib presentation and communication skills training men on table.

Whilst preparing we agreed with each other in advance what points each of us would make in the unscripted sections.

There was still room for genuine ad libs but we wrote sections to look spontaneous.

The result was that very little had to be committed to memory increasing the smoothness of the delivery.

I missed one great opportunity to break the tension of the moment, when the next speaker (a doctor), failed to take the stage on cue.

I looked to the wings of the stage to find them empty.

That was the opportunity to say:

“The doctor’s running a little late this afternoon but she WILL be with you just as soon possible.”

Instead, she ran on, apologised for spending too much time in “make up”, and the moment was gone!

Our Public Speaking Courses in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and indeed around the world, emphasise the need to follow a plan on stage and in the studio.

I frequently ask my Communication Skills training audience:  what should you do with a throwaway remark?

The answer is simple:  throw it away!

When we fail to prepare

ad lib presentation and communication skills training fire on oil rig.

History is littered with ad lib comments that people instantly regretted.

For example, Tony Hayward, boss of BP, telling the media that:

 “I just want my life back”

After 11 had died in a BP explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

I like to construct quotes and examples as a “shopping list” before presentations and media interviews.

I then weave them into what I have to say.

Famously, I once stood on the steps of a courthouse in Scotland and told TV that the police had

 “fed the media misconceptions, half-truths and downright lies”

about the case.

But rather than the sentence just forming on my lips, it was part of a document I had prepared for media consumption.

Exceptions to the rule

ad lib presentation and communication skills training Jack Nicholson.

Some major films have, however, been improved by lead actors coming up with a new line or building on an existing one.

Roy Scheider in Jaws (1975) was meant to stay silent after a shark attack on his boat.

Instead, he said:

 “We need a bigger boat.”

Jack Nicholson is famous for ad-libbing on set.

In The Shining (1980), as his character axes his way through a door, his menacing face announces

 “Here’s Johnny!”

It was a reference to the way Johnny Carson was introduced on The Late Show.

It became the defining line in the film, even though it was made up on the spot.

And the same actor stole the show by changing

 “you already know the truth” to

 “you can’t handle the truth”

in A Few Good Men (1992).

However – these are the exceptions that make the rule I highly-recommend:

“All ad libs in future MUST be scripted.”


Bill McFarlan is the Executive Chairman of Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here


Photo Credit: By Unknown – US Coast Guard – 100421-G-XXXXL- Deepwater Horizon fire (Direct link), Public Domain,, Georges Biard [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


27th September 2017 Featured in: Blog By:

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