“Textual Deviates”

That's what political speechwriter David Kusnet calls speakers who would rather riff than look stiff. Here's why they do it.

Last week I was writing a column on speechwriters’ behalf for a magazine for CEOs. (Oh yes, I’ll share that when it comes out.) 

I was at pains to explain directly to these haughty honchos why it is important to stick to the text—and also why it is important to rehearse a speech in advance of its delivery. 

And suddenly, after only three decades of professional observation of the tortured speechwriting and public speaking scene, I realized there’s a perverse but direct relationship between ad-libbing, and the typical lack of speech rehearsal.

It goes like this:

Leaders ad lib speeches because they didn’t rehearse the script, and as they shamble up to the lectern, they realize their choices are two: 1. Read with their head mostly down, like a nerd. 2. Depart from the text and trust your vague memory of what’s inside, ascertained on the car ride over. That, and your native charm.

And since they don’t want to appear stiff, they riff.

In other words:

They’re unprepared.

But they don’t want to look unprepared.

So they throw away all preparations, in favor of appearing spontaneous.

And then they call it “speaking from the heart.”

When really, it’s speaking from another body part.


  1. Bill

    I once asked my friend Ken Askew how to persuade a client who was particularly stubborn on this point to take rehearsing seriously. “Tell him that Lee Iacocca (whom Ken wrote for, also George HW Bush) rehearsed his big speeches at least three times and often in front of a small audience in the auditorium,” Ken said. “And tell him Iacocca was the best there ever was.”

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