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The natural born speaker: is there any such thing?

I always assume those speakers who claim not to have made any notes are bluffing. That they have, in fact, made copious notes, and memorised them verbatim. The impression they give – that speaking comes entirely naturally to them – is based on a lie, albeit a rather harmless one.

In most cases this is probably true, the ‘let’s see where this takes us’ routine is just part of the speaker’s repertoire. A confidence trick to get the audience on side. Like appearing slightly shambolic – ‘Oh, damn! I’ve left my notes in my hotel room!’ – it’s usually just a device to win us over.

There are always those, of course, who really haven’t prepared. But, either through modesty or shame, they are unlikely to admit to the fact. It only becomes apparent once they begin to speak.

A genuine lack of preparedness is usually a bad thing.

We have all sat though meandering speeches, where the speaker seems to be grasping at air for half-remembered data, bereft of a coherent argument or even a salient point. It’s painful for all concerned, but also (and here, I think, we have TED to thank!) an increasingly rare spectacle.

Sometimes, however, speakers are genuinely better when speaking off-script.

These are those who are so familiar with their subject that preparation can act as an unnecessary  constraint. When a genuinely erudite speaker starts free-wheeling it can be a truly exhilarating experience. All these people need is an outline and they can do the colouring-in with panache.

The extent to which speakers should or shouldn’t ‘prepare’ is a moot point.

Graham Davies, founder of The Presentation Coach, reckons the line about ‘not wanting to sound over-rehearsed’ is trotted out by speakers who are just too lazy to prepare properly.

When he made this point on LinkedIn recently he precipitated a vigorous debate between people who broadly agreed with his sentiment and those who broadly did not.

It was ‘delusional’, one claimed, to think you could be a successful speaker without putting in lots of effort and ‘winging it’, frankly, was not an option for mere mortals.

Another huffed that speakers who didn’t prepare ‘weren’t speakers at all!’

But for every advocate of the belt-and-braces approach there was a voice of dissent.

Overly rehearsed speeches felt ‘fake’, someone complained, ‘like it’s been done over and over’. ‘Not wanting to be over-rehearsed isn’t lazy’, said another, ‘it’s wanting to be natural’.

While it is interesting, from a psychological point of view, to know how speakers perform, the rituals they go through, or do not go through, ultimately there are only good speakers and bad speakers.

Most people, I suspect, have to work at being a good speaker.

A lucky few will be natural born speakers, with the intellectual felicity and gift of the gab to make it look unrehearsed, because unrehearsed is precisely what it is.