Spontaneity Personified: The Ad Lib

What to say when the lights go out, or when the microphone starts popping, or when the dishes go crashing in the kitchen next door are all situations we do not prepare for when getting ready to speak. We do not prepare for getting tongue-tied, either, during a presentation, yet when something goes awry, having the right word can save the moment and increase credibility for a speaker. That is the ad lib.

The ad lib is important in many communication situations, but never more important than in public speaking situations. The right word can keep the momentum of the presentation going, and the wrong word or no words can destroy the connection between speaker and audience.

Although the ad lib literally means “at one’s pleasure,” and implies speaking without forethought, the best way to have words that appear to be ad libs is to prepare ahead of time. Consider all the possible things that might go wrong during a presentation and compose a comment that you might use when that unexpected situation occurs. The audience will love it.

Here are some examples that you might use for your next speaking emergency. If you have a tendency to get tongue-tied, say, “I just got my teeth fixed and now my tongue won’t work.” 

When my projector kept vibrating because the hotel’s heating system was shaking the floor and my slides were impossible to focus clearly, I said, “This the first time my equipment is more nervous than I am.” 

Be careful in your choice of remarks that you aren’t too caustic. Once when someone came in late, the speaker said, “Could I get you something—a snack, a pencil, a watch?” 

When the microphone starts making weird sounds, you might say, “Obviously someone in the control room has heard me before.” 

Terry Paul uses this one for any distracting situation: “This life is a test. It is only a test. If it had been a real life, I would have been given instructions on where to go and what to do.” 

Here are some tips on how to use the ad lib, whatever you choose to say.

  • Pause before you say anything. This gives you time to think and to set the tone for whatever you say.
  • Use facial expressions that show you are in fun.
  • If you say something that is truly spontaneous and it works, write the comment down afterward so you can remember to use it again.

            One of the most memorable ad lib lines ever occurred in the movie When Harry Met Sally. Billy Crystal ad libbed it in rehearsal, and it was quickly written into the script. At the conclusion of the famous faked orgasm by Meg Ryan, the nearby customer at the restaurant says to the server, “I’ll have what she is having.”

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Contact Steve today for priority scheduling! (859) 866-5693 or email info@SBoyd.com

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