Preparation vs. Improvisation

Posted On Sep 12, 2022 |

It's been said that failing to prepare is preparing to fail and yet many speakers and coaches prefer to wing it for interviews and presentations

People think improvisation is something people just get up and do. Well, it can be but the best improvisers are the ones who have practised. Seems somewhat paradoxical to the idea of improvisation, I know but it’s true.

Think of improvisation from people like The Comedy Store Players, they don’t just get up on stage and magically know what to do, they’ve spent years honing their craft and flexing their mental muscles to be able to get up on stage and make improvisation look effortless and easy. It doesn’t just happen.

This is one reason why I fill with dread when people tell me for presentations and interviews that they’re just going to wing it. I get to interview many expert speakers, speechwriters and coaches for my podcast and time and again people will talk about the importance of preparation for success.

I often ask people what their superpower is when it comes to influence and persuasion skills and on more than one occasion the answer has been planning and preparation. For good reason too.

I know there are people who can get up to speak, never having been trained, never having practised and can do a pretty decent job because they feel naturally confident. We often refer to such people as extroverts. It’s usually extroverted people who already feel they can self-present well enough to not need any formal knowledge or training and that’s just fine if you’re okay with just being okay.

I’m not an extrovert. I’m a fairly shy, socially awkward introvert who has worked on himself and practised my art enough to become more of an ambivert. I can get up and speak impromptu because I have regularly practised speaking in front of people both prepared speeches and improvised ones. Even so, I know there is always room for improvement. I can always be better so long as I don’t decide that I’m already as good as I can get.

One of my favourite guests and I’m happy to say he’s now a friend too, which is how charmed my life is since getting into podcasting, is professional speech writer Simon Lancaster. Simon was the person who first introduced me to the world of rhetoric, styles of speaking and communication for maximum influence and impact, originally studied and notated by the great Aristotle himself.

Don’t berate yourself if you’ve never heard of rhetoric before, at least in this way, because it is not commonly taught, especially in the general education system. Check out Simon’s TedX Verona speech on YouTube, it’s a lot of fun and it will open your eyes to a hidden world of influence in language that is generally reserved for those in power and commonly known by politicians and legal experts.

I bring this up because whilst you may sometimes accidentally stumble on something that works as being persuasive in a presentation unless you know how these things work more formally, chances are you’re not even going to know what you did well enough to be able to replicate it in the future.

Rhetoric isn’t the only game in town when it comes to influencing, there’s hypnotic language, passion, vocal variety, physical rhetoric and a wealth of techniques that can make what you present more memorable and therefore make you more influential in your communication.

If you are always winging it and never really practising or improving your ability to communicate effectively, I believe you are ultimately taking away from yourself the gift of growth and the opportunity to reach the peaks of your ability. Whilst natural ability can be a blessing, it will nearly always be surpassed by those who are willing to push themselves further, train themselves harder and get the best teachers and mentors to help them do it.

One of the things that will help you be better at getting interviewed and seeming like you know what you’re doing is to have some prepared answers for things. Last week I talked about how having a framework for something you’re an expert in is a great way to come across as someone who really knows what they are talking about. Experts have frameworks and it makes teaching easier.

One thing I hate, hate, hate in podcasts (a little rhetorical device for you there), is the personal background story that so interviewers ask their guests for at the beginning. I’ve been guilty of this in my earlier podcasting career. It’s the ‘tell us everything that’s ever happened in your life in 2 minutes’ kind of question and it’s boring to listen to. So, what I recommend is that you actually have a prepared story with a lesson in it to share for when this happens, or ask the host to skip that in the interview before you record.

Stories can set the tone for who you are and allow people to gain some of your life lessons through partially experiencing those events with you. As Matthew Dicks, author of Storyworthy and a terrific guest in my early podcasting days says, start your storied from as close to the end as makes sense, tell them in the present tense so people can experience them with you and if you’re naturally funny, add some humour. If you’re not naturally funny, get some help adding some humour and if you like getting paid and growing an audience, add some humour.

If you picked up on the message in the last paragraph, it’s because I used a rhetorical device called a tricolon. It’s more commonly known as the rule of three. It works surprisingly well, especially for emphasising a point such as using humour in your stories and presentations. It’s not so hard to even put into a story, presentation or even an interview answer. It genuinely helps people to remember. It’s why it is so often used in political slogans and public health campaigns.

Think you can do a good job of that without being practised or prepared? Hmm… let’s see. Apart from the power of three (tricolon), the use of humour (which is generally not a bad thing when used appropriately and having prepared stories when you’re being interviewed, the one thing I hope you take away from this newsletter more than anything else is the value of being prepared.

Yes, you can do a decent job without it but you can do so much better with it. Let me give you an example this week of where I failed to do that myself as a show host and really showed myself up for not having been more prepared and having done a bit of research on a guest. I was interviewing the lovely Nicole Baldinu who is, with her partner Omar Zenhom, part of the team behind The $100 MBA podcast and also the company Webinar Ninja.

Had I done my homework, I would have realised that I’ve been on their mailing list forever and that they have one of the top podcasts in business and entrepreneurship in the world. How embarrassing for me. Now, I’m an experienced interviewer and really just getting my mojo back on as I relaunch my show but it was a potent reminder to me not to wing it. Nicole seemed surprised when I wanted to discuss her webinar business before the podcast and that certainly makes sense to me now.

Luckily, Nicole is a delight and the rapport was strong in the interview that we both felt we had made a new friend. I would have preferred not to have left that to chance though. You’ll likely get to hear that interview around October/November time this year.

I don’t want to be too hard on myself here though. It was a great interview and that has come down to the time I have put in and the experience I have gained in interviewing since starting my show almost 3 years ago. It wasn’t completely down to chance is all I am saying but I do feel it could have been a better interview in terms of structure and flow had I researched more. Lucky for me, Nicole is also a pro and got things on track very gracefully.

What do you think? Are you someone who wings it and you remain unconvinced? I’d like to know why? Do you agree or disagree? Did you learn anything new here? Was it a useful reminder to always practice and be prepared? If you’ve enjoyed reading this and got some value, there’s a good chance you know someone else who would enjoy it too. Sharing is caring and will get you my undying appreciation.

You may have to wait a while to hear the interview with Nicole but you can go back and listen to the first interview I did some serious research and prep for which was with Mike Michalowicz, author of Do This Next, Clockwork, Profit First and several other terrific books. I had a very limited time with Mike, which I did push to the limits very cheekily and he was a very well-prepared guest. Listen and learn.

My musical energiser treat for you this week is a feel-good song from the hit ’80s tv show The Kids From Fame. I’ve just been to their reunion concert in Birmingham, it was a present from my husband for my 50th birthday and it was a wonderful experience. I was delighted to see Valerie Landsberg (Doris), Lee Curreri (Bruno) and Carlo Imperato (Danny) reprising songs from the show and the film. This is one I loved so much we played it at our wedding because life really should be a celebration. Enjoy.


Categories: Newsletter, Podfluence