Divide and Conquer

by Peter Watts

The ability to speak spontaneously to an audience, straight from the heart, creates a link between audience and speaker that cannot exist when the barrier of the “prepared script” stands between them.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show “Wishful Drinking”, where Fisher, the actress who created the Star Wars character Princess Leia, sits on an over-stuffed sofa with drink in one hand and cigarette in the other and slightly gravel-voiced (just look how the Princess grew up!), talks about her life with a wit and humour that has the audience crying with laughter.

She has no notes, few props, and no-one to bounce off except the people in the seats before her. She appears to make it up as she goes along, just for us, just for tonight. One long spontaneous speech and the audience love her for it.

Of course, it isn’t spontaneous. We’re witnessing months of writing and rehearsing. It’s her ability to look her audience straight in the eye, and appear to be speaking without the safety net of a prepared script that creates the spellbinding link.

We can do much the same within sections of presentations. We can put our notes aside and depart from our script to speak from the heart so long as, like all the best spontaneous speeches, it’s carefully planned ahead of time!

Imagine yourself standing on one bank of a fast-flowing river. Where you’re standing right now is the start of your note-free speaking, and the opposite bank is where you will return to the script.

Stage one in preparing the speech is to make sure it’s structured to get you across that water nice and dry. Fix in your mind what specific idea it is that you want to  be most clear to the audience.

Focus on that destination. What is the over-riding point to be communicated?

If the destination is clear in your mind, navigating the presentation becomes easier. Challenge yourself with “What do I want everyone in this room to be saying as they leave?” and let that finishing point be represented by the opposite bank of the river. You now have to get your audience there by the simplest route possible.

It’s like the advice given to tight-rope walkers – don’t look down, keep your eyes on where you’re going.

The next question is how to physically get across the river. One approach would be stepping stones you can walk across. Speech-writers call these stepping stones “Divisions”; the individual sections of the speech.

Break the speech down into its logical units and let these individual pieces form a chain of stepping stones. In your mind you are moving from logical stone to logical stone, each step leading towards the opposite bank.

The journey is easier when we can see both how far we have come and the rapidly decreasing distance across the stones to our destination.

Through division of content into reachable stepping stones, which can be memorized, actors like Fisher can get from one end of a two-hour show to the other.

For the rest of us there is no reason we shouldn’t stretch ourselves to a similar section in our next presentation. Even just five minutes of this direct, note-free speaking will make a big impact. Consider politicians when, in a televised speech, they “step away from their prepared text” for just five minutes. Which bit makes the headlines? The spontaneous bit.

One final point. There is no surer way to make sure everyone knows you’re speaking off-the-script, than to tell them that’s what you’re doing! A Roman writer on oratory observed:

“observations please better when they appear conceived on the moment, and not brought from home, springing from the subject itself as we are discussing it. Hence the expressions, “I had almost forgotten,” “It had escaped me,” “You aptly remind me,” are by no means ill received.”

He is recommending us to underline moments of spontaneity with small statements that point out what we’re doing, emphasizing the spontaneous nature of the moment, just in case anyone has missed it!

Spontaneity from the heart best wins the crowd when it is pre-planned from the brain!


  1. I quite agree with you about this idea of the planned ad-lib Peter.

    My favourite technique for speaking is to glue down the flap of a DL envelope and write, on just one side, the structure of topics I am going to speak about. Each point only needs the familiar title I have for that idea, as I have a ‘feel’ what I’ll say about that topic when I reach it. That leaves me free to look all around the audience, from face to face, as I speak and to react to the audience’s reactions.

    That way I’m usually able to get at least one laugh, even when originally unplanned. At a recent event in London I ad-libbed a line about my hairdresser which I realised too late, as I heard myself speak, had a double meaning. So I rode with it .. drew the audience’s attention to my faux pas and got them to laugh with me.

  2. The notes I just read in your text above are TRULY AMAZING. They cover more than the problems people feel when speaking in public.
    I will read about this more and hopefully will subscribe to any literature or course you may offer
    Thanks very much for posting the information on the web

    • Hi Quader

      Great to hear that you enjoyed the blog. As you might have noticed, the writing has been on a sabbatical for the past months while I was traveling. I’m now back though, and the blog will be resuming shortly. If you have any suggestions for topics you might like to see addressed, then do please get in touch. All suggestions always gratefully received.

      Best regards

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