The Art of the Ad Lib

The Art of the AD LIB

The lights go out. Your microphone starts popping. Dishes go crashing. These are all situations we do not normally prepare for when getting ready for a presentation. Yet when something goes awry, calling up the right word on the spur of the moment can save the point you are making and increase your credibility as a speaker. This is the art of the appropriate ad lib.

Although ad lib literally means “at one’s pleasure” and implies speaking without preparation, the best way to have the right ad lib is to prepare it ahead of time. Bob Newhart has mastered the planned ad lib.

Consider all the possible things to go wrong during a presentation; write a comment to go with it that will appear to be an ad lib and the audience will love it. Here are examples you might find appropriate for your next speaking emergency.

When you get tongue-tied, say, “I just got my teeth fixed and now my tongue won’t work.”

I don’t recommend this, but here is how another speaker responded to the interruption of a latecomer. He walked over to the person and said, “Could I get you something? A snack…a pencil,…a watch?” He certainly got a good laugh out of it, but at the expense of an audience member, which I try to avoid.

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

Terry Paulson 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.”

This happened long ago (which is obvious because I was still using transparencies!) but it is still one of my most vivid speaking career memories. My overhead projector kept vibrating because the hotel’s heating system was shaking the floor and my transparencies were impossible to focus clearly. So I said, “This is the first time my equipment has been more nervous than I am.”  The audience laughed and I went on with my presentation. Fortunately the heating system shut off soon and the vibrations stopped.

Here are some tips on how to use the ad lib, whatever you think 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 pick a line that is truly spontaneous and it works, be sure to write it down later so you can remember to use it again.

Preparing for the unforeseen can save the day for you if you have the right ad lib.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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