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Stacking the dishwasher can make us better at ad libbing…

I spent some of the bank holiday (quite a lot of it actually) sorting my kitchen cupboards. There was a lot of rationalisation to be done. For example, I discovered three half-empty jars of garam masala (BTW what even is that????). Now there’s one full jar. The contents of several bags of self-raising flour are now gloriously combined, and a random collection of water bottles has been transformed into a shelf of beauty, as you see in the ‘photo above.

You may have deduced that I am slightly controlling or, with a more positive spin, I have good attention to detail.  Hands up if you are the same ……..

If you’re in any doubt, consider this question – do you reload the dishwasher when someone has placed items incorrectly?  If the answer is ‘yes’, welcome to the club. Please wipe your shoes on the way in!

Last month, Keir Starmer announced that he deems ‘speaking skills’ to be a key element in social mobility. That the ability to communicate effectively and confidently helps young people to break down barriers, to thrive and succeed in the work place and beyond. To have more control over their lives.

I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I consider it to be the most important life skill. Good communication delivers good outcomes in relationships, careers, health, politics and Racing Across the World (if you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and head to BBC IPLAYER immediately. Superb viewing).

Malcolm Gladwell concurs too. In Outliers, he suggests that an important factor in gettingwhat we want from the world” is “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect”.

And there’s US presidential corroboration too. According to Theodore Roosevelt, The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people”.

Happily, just like a sport, these are skills which can be learned and finessed. If we put in the hours (Gladwell calculates it at 10,000), success will follow and the confidence muscle will grow. Yes, it’s a muscle not a mystical force field.

Interestingly, in recent months, one concern has been repeatedly voiced by my ‘trainees’ – a fear of speaking off the cuff, anxiety about ad libbing, a dread of being put on the spot by an unexpected comment or question. Simply put – the terror of losing control.

This was not an issue when I started training people 20 years ago. So why is it now? I believe it’s because most communication occurs via a range of digital channels which means that we have time to think, to craft, to perfect. We can choose how, when or if we respond. And the preference for digital is growing. One of my clients told me that when she started work in PR five years ago, her ‘phone rang several times per day. Now her ‘phone is silent.

So, those who’ve only ever communicated in a digital world haven’t learned and practiced how to think/speak on their feet. It’s no surprise that it feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable and frightening.

What’s also evident is that many people grew comfortable communicating virtually during the pandemic (with physical distance between them and their audience and the ability to use notes) and are now struggling with face-to-face communication because it’s more immediate and more unpredictable.

So, what’s the solution if you want to address this issue?

Firstly, mind-set. An acknowledgement that nobody is born with an innate ability to ad lib. The great and the good, people you might admire, have put the hours in.

Winston Churchill is reputed to have prepared and practiced ad libs and put downs for when he was heckled/challenged in the House of Commons. And he’s considered to be one of the greatest speakers of all time.

Stand-up comedians will craft and rehearse responses to potential hecklers – surely the very definition of speaking off the cuff. They might use ‘evergreen comebacks’ – a generic response, not connected to the comment that’s been made but designed to shut the heckler up. Another technique – the ‘ad lib comeback’ is related to the specific heckle and may involve eg wordplay. Excellent article on these techniques here https://www.standupcomedyclinic.com/how-to-crush-a-heckler-without-ruining-the-show/ The main point is – they’re not simply winging it in the moment (thought that’s the illusion they create).

None of us is about to become a stand up but we can follow their lead by trying to anticipate the topics/questions which might be thrown at us. We can prepare some content and rehearse it out loud, to become more comfortable with the sound of our voice filling the silence.

Also, let’s banish perfectionism. In the context of my spice cupboard, a bit of control freakery is fine. When it’s about unrealistic expectations of ourselves, it’s damaging. Think of it as a sport – not every shot is a winner.

And finally, we need to desensitise ourselves – this is the only way to truly build confidence and skill. Choose to make a call rather than sending an email; speak to a colleague in person instead of dropping them a message; approach the client at the networking event; speak up in a meeting.

Make a small start, get some hours under your belt and the muscle will grow.

Also, please don’t stack the big plates in the small gaps.



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