How ‘extemporaneous holes’ can enliven your next presentation

Speakers, are your presentations so rigidly structured that you give yourself no breathing room, no chance to interact on a human level with your listeners? Here’s how to loosen up a bit.

Speakers, are you using “holes” to your advantage?

Many executives open a practice speech with a statement along these lines: “Thank you for coming. I’m very excited that you could join us today for this unprecedented announcement.”

The problem is that they’re reading those opening lines from their scripts, without even a hint of excitement in their voices, while looking down and making scant eye contact with audience members.

Here’s what I tell them when we review their videotapes together: If a line intended to be sincere has to be read from the page, it will lose all sincerity.

That’s why we encourage many speakers using a script to look for places within their speeches to insert “extemporaneous holes.” During those holes, they briefly leave their prepared scripts and speak in a more off-the-cuff style. The opening mentioned above, in which the specific words don’t matter as much as their tone and sincerity, is one logical place to leave a hole.

You can also “break the pattern” by looking for a place or two to add a hole within the body of your talk.

Loosen up your anecdotes

Let’s say you’re sharing a first-person story or offering a specific example. You might do well to let your natural storytelling abilities take over. Practice your extemporaneous passages in advance, of course-but don’t memorize them word for word, as that strips the device of its effectiveness.

You might also leave a hole for the close, for the same reason as you did in the opening: The sincerity of your wrap-up could prove to be more important than its precision.

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On the script itself, you can note the extemporaneous holes with a brief phrase such as, “Warm Welcome,” or, “Tell Brody Manufacturing Story.”

Transitions between scripted and extemporaneous sections can sound clunky to the audience-the shift in a speaker’s tone can be abrupt-so pay particular attention to them during your speech practice. It’s OK if the audience picks up on the change, but make your transitions as seamless as possible.

Extemporaneous holes are like well-tailored pants

If you’re ever delivering a talk that someone else prepared for you, find places to personalize it with an extemporaneous hole.

As an example, I know someone who volunteers at a hospital, where she delivers the orientation workshop to new volunteers. She’s not alone in that role; other experienced volunteers also lead the same workshop.

To ensure uniformity among the speakers, the hospital prepared a PowerPoint deck for the speakers to use. Though that approach makes sense, it can also lead to stilted talks that sound as though they’ve been written by somebody else.

When speakers are asked to deliver such a templated presentation, I encourage them to think of an off-the-rack pair of pants. Just as new pants often have to be hemmed or cuffed, the same is true with template presentations; you don’t have to wear them “as is.” Most presentations will benefit if you inject your own personality while retaining their basic structure.

For example, when the script (or slide) instructs new volunteers to wash their hands every time they enter a patient room, that scripted point can be brought to life with an extemporaneous hole about the time the speaker innocently forgot to wash her hands upon entering a room-and jumped when three nurses and a physician immediately (and with great agitation) barked at her, “Go wash your hands!”

That hole will not only make the point more memorable, but it will probably make the speaker seem more relatable, elicit a knowing laugh and liven up the room.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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