One of the episodes of my college freshman year course in Public Speaking that I really enjoyed was when the professor would ask (read: direct) one of us to come to the front of the class. He would then give us a word upon which we were to take the next 5-10 minutes to expound … extemporaneously.
That meant that we had no advance notice of the topic and had to draw from our own personal understanding of the word. I loved it. My friend, Bob, didn’t. He was an older student, and didn’t have a clue what “euthanasia” meant. His presentation about the meaning of a very personal part of his adolescent life was enlightening, and the class held its laughter until the professor pointed out that he had confused the words. He was embarrassed, but I suspect every member of the class remembers that experience …55 years later!
To speak extemporaneously means to do so without notes or text. I have frequently heard people talk about the fact that they loved it when their pastor, priest, rabbi preaches extemporaneously. What they are describing is the speaker coming down from a pulpit to the front of the congregation and speaking without notes in what appears to be a very spontaneous, personal manner.
What these people don’t realize is that the cleric has, actually, done a good deal of preparation for the homily. It probably involves a good degree of research biblically. In addition, there is typically some research into the meaning of the words which are being expanded upon, and there is some degree of contemporary expression of the topic, perhaps from the news media or contemporary culture. It differs from a planned “sermon” which is structured, formal, and capable of being reproduced in hard copy for people to read at a later time.
The secret is to present the material without it seeming to depend upon a planned script. My personal plan for such presentations was always to prepare a skeleton summary of the speech, perhaps on a 3×5″ index card, which contained the essence of the presentation. The things I didn’t want to overlook or forget, and a simplistic order in which they might appear. The rest of the material was from memory, inspired by the four or five words I might have scribbled on the card. One feature of this type of speaking was that it enabled me to include very, very current examples of the point which I was making, even perhaps something that was said to me, or reported to me, as I was getting ready for the presentation. It made the presentation much more relevant and caught the audience’s interest.
Extemporaneity is a much sought-after quality for people who do a lot of public appearances. The President is often criticized for his use of a speech monitor, a seemingly-invisible piece of electronic wonder which carries the entire text of his prepared speech. He is adept at its use, appearing to be entirely extemporaneous in his presentation. People who are not impressed with this ability criticize him for being scripted, as if to say that he is crippled without his monitor. That is not the case, however. He is actually very effective in a discussion setting where he has no notes and is not following a script. He (unlike the Vice-President) is not one who occasionally makes “foot-in-mouth” blunders when speaking without notes. To the contrary, as a former Law School professor he is quite good at pulling data and information from his memory to present cogent and informative responses to questions.
I suspect his use of the speech monitor is necessary given the frequency and variety of speeches he is required to give. His desire to create a transparent administration (not something he has necessarily accomplished at all times) leads him to believe he should be in front of a camera regularly. His speech writers earn their salaries. In order to keep data fresh and accurate, he depends upon the visual reminders a speech monitor give him.
But the memorable moments in his professional career as President of the United States have been those casual, informal settings in which he speaks from the heart, not from a script. He is a master at extemporaneous speaking.
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