by Steve Adubato, PhD

Recently at a charity banquet, one of the speakers started out his presentation by saying, “I know I was asked to speak about XYZ, but I decided I would just wing it tonight and see what comes out.” Well, let me tell you what “came out.” 

The speaker was rambling, unfocused, did not have a clear message, and after about five or six minutes, you could see numerous audience members fidgeting in their seats and wondering where this whole thing was going. At that point, the panicked speaker said, “You know, I just remembered. I was asked to speak for no longer than two or three minutes and I’ve been up here for a lot longer than that. So I figured the best thing I should do is stop right here.” Huh? Then, after and awkward pause, he said, “Thank you,” and walked off the podium to a smattering of embarrassed applause.

It was an uncomfortable moment to say the least, but a classic example of what happens when speakers, particularity those who have an unrealistic and unwarranted sense of confidence, get up and “wing it.”

Regular readers of this column know that I am a big fan of speaking from the heart and connecting with people on an emotional and visceral level. (I don’t like people who read their speeches verbatim.) But those lofty goals should never be confused with being a lazy, unfocused communicator who decides to say whatever comes out of his mouth in the moment.

Connecting with people on a deeper level has more to do with preparation than most people think. You have to ask yourself what is the exact purpose of the event and why are these people attending? What is the most important message I can deliver given all the things that are likely to be said by the other speakers? Why have I been asked to speak at this event in the first place? And, finally, this question has to be asked in the moment and based on having solid instincts about people and situations—Given everything that has been said before my opportunity to speak, how should I revise my comments so that I connect and communicate in a more powerful way?

None of this has to do with “winging it.” When you take such an irresponsible approach to communicating in public, several things are likely to happen:

  • You will speak too long because you don’t have a clear focus. Rambling is often the product of not knowing where you are going when communicating and hoping you’ll get some place at some point, yet this rarely happens.


  • Your level of anxiety will be increased because you don’t have a clear message or anchor, which will often give you the confidence you need to know that you have something meaningful to contribute to this event and audience.


  • You will disappoint, and in some cases frustrate, those who have asked you to speak. Improvising is fine, as long as you know why you were asked to be on the program. Only the most experienced communicators can take such big risks and say to themselves; “I know I’ve been asked to speak about X, but tonight I’d rather speak about Y.” And even then, it can be a dangerous proposition.


  • Finally, when you speak in such an uncontrolled fashion, not only is it unlikely that you will have a strong opening that gets your audience’s attention, but you will lack the type of powerful and concise closing comments that leave an exclamation point on everything you’ve said.

When communicating in public, meandering is not a smart strategy, which is why “winging it” rarely if ever hits the mark in the communication game.