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Is There a Right Way to Go Off Script?

It pretty much depends on your audience

We live in a post-script world. In other words, by today’s standards, going off script is just part of what makes a speech feel contemporary. Now, this is only a recent development: Even a couple years ago, the only time you had to listen to someone wing it was at a wedding or during an impromptu toast. But we currently live in a world where the president regularly tweets his shower thoughts, and in a time that’s not only post-script — it’s post-facts, too — it seems that the only measure of how true your message is to your feelings is how far off script you’re willing to go.

To that end, earlier this month Robert De Niro received a standing ovation at the Tony Awards when he went off script to tell the audience just how he felt about the president (an action that, despite the applause, was regarded as “toothless” in the aftermath).

While deviating from the teleprompter can go either way, according to the Harvard Business Review there’s at least one instance when going off script is scientifically proven to be better: Job interviews. “By interrupting your own scripts and building on the discussion, you can make the conversation flow more organically, allowing the interviewer to process information more deeply,” write Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson. Their advice is based on what psychologists refer to as the peripheral route, a phenomenon that can cause someone to go on autopilot and use only small parts of information they’ve already practiced, versus the full span of data they have in front of them.

That said, Duane Smith, a professor of public speaking in L.A., tells me that in spite of the current trend of under preparation that’s plaguing public orators, he still firmly believes that the best thing you can do is, “Prepare, prepare, prepare.” But since lack of preparation can apparently get you elected to the highest office in the country, is there a right way to go off-the-cuff so you don’t end up looking like a rambling fool?

“If you have an organized mind, you can keep your words under control and you can always come across clearly,” says Smith. Having an organized mind, he explains, entails being able to know what you’re going to say in 10 words or less. “Immediately crystallize what your topic is and figure out how you’re going to grab their attention before delivering your first line,” Smith advises.

Furthermore, Smith suggests understanding who your audience is (“Audience is king,” he emphasizes). In De Niro’s case, for example, he knew that his audience at the Tony Awards in large part agreed with his anti-Trump sentiment and would give him a good reaction. And whether you agree with his words or not, the same is still true of Trump. “Trump is going to speak to his audience and they will respect and appreciate anything he says,” says Smith. “The speech and tweets that lack structure or organization are the same ones that got him elected.”

What, then, is the right balance between appropriate preparation and a certain level of relatable improvisation? “People like people who come across as human. When I stress preparation, I don’t just mean the research and the writing — most important is learning to have a go-to structure,” Smith explains. “A structure you can employ to write a speech that’s a month away, or one you can employ on the spot that demonstrates you’re controlling your words and you’re being thoughtful.”

Alternatively, Smith says that if you’re feeling shaky and you don’t have anything meaningful to offer, just stick to the script. “Even a fool looks wise when they keep their mouth shut,” says Smith.

If only “a fool” would also listen to advice like that.