‘Winging it’ when you are making a speech involves lots of practice

Pilita Clark: few speakers truly have the ‘wang’ to wing it

Boris Johnson: his contrived bluster concealed a man who was fantastically well prepared. Photograph: Darren Staples/Bloomberg

Boris Johnson: his contrived bluster concealed a man who was fantastically well prepared. Photograph: Darren Staples/Bloomberg

 

Last weekend I found myself sitting in a tent at the Dalkey Book Festival on the outskirts of Dublin, where the Booker Prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan gave a curious explanation for the source of artistic creativity.

He told a story about a fellow Australian, the cricketer Jeff Thomson, a terrifying fast bowler who was once asked to describe his lethal delivery technique. A puzzled Thomson replied that all he did was run up and “go wang”.

Flanagan thought there was a lot of wang in art and he is probably right. Some people are unnaturally gifted and it is pointless to ask them why.

I was still thinking about the mystery of wang when I got back to London and saw that BBC presenter Jeremy Vine had posted a remarkable story online about Boris Johnson, the frontrunner in the race to be Britain’s next prime minister.

It struck me as a tale of wang and wing – as in winging it – and one that should be required reading for anyone who needs to make a speech at work.

Vine one night witnessed the wang-like magnificence of Johnson, who hurtled in hopelessly late to a bankers’ awards ceremony at a fancy London hotel, only to learn he was due on stage in minutes to give the after-dinner speech.

As stressed organisers looked on, the MP frantically ascertained what the awards were for, demanded a biro, scribbled some notes on the back of a menu and, to Vine’s astonishment, delivered a paralysingly funny speech – despite having left his scrawled notes on the table.

Punchline

First he told a story about a sheep, then another about a shark and a third about a drunk, to which he completely forgot the punchline. He ended by observing that a glass trophy Vine was there to hand out looked like “a sort of elongated lozenge”. The crowd was in fits.

Vine, who generally likes to prepare for a speech weeks in advance and write the whole thing out in longhand, realised he was in the presence of genius. As he later wrote to Johnson: “Brilliant. Inspired. Funniest speech I have ever seen.”

But 18 months later Vine found himself at another industry event in another hotel, where again Johnson raced in late to give a speech with no apparent clue about who he was speaking to. Again came the plea for a biro and the scribbled notes on the menu, also left on the table.

Then came the stories of the sheep, the shark and the drunk, with the same forgotten punchline, and finally the elongated lozenge gag, all delivered to gales of laughter. Vine watched all this in a state of understandable incredulity. For him the whole affair raised a fundamental question: is this guy for real? It was a fair point, but not the only one.

Johnson’s performance was also a masterclass in three great truths of public speaking, starting with a lesson that is obvious yet too often overlooked: don’t be afraid to be funny. Not every speech needs to be crammed with gags and not every speaker can deliver one as deftly as Johnson. But most talks are immeasurably improved by at least one attempt at a well-chosen joke, and preferably two.

Johnson also deployed what is known as the rule of three. Too many speeches are littered with a torrent of information that makes them hard to deliver and digest. The best are often broken up into just three points, or at least have a beginning, a middle and an end. A sheep, a shark and a drunk will not suit every occasion, but the principle still applies.

Contrived bluster

Finally, and most importantly, there is the need for preparation. Johnson’s contrived bluster concealed a man who was fantastically well prepared. The best speakers usually are. For most of us the only way to look as if you are winging it is to practise so ferociously that you eventually sound spontaneous.

As the speaker guide for the ubiquitous TED Talks puts it: “Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!”

Some TED talkers claim to spend as much as 200 hours practising. Others say you need to put in at least an hour of rehearsal for every minute of a talk. Either way, as Vine discovered, vanishingly few speakers truly have the wang to wing it. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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