Finding the Words
Preparing to be spontaneous sounds contradictory. Spontaneity means ‘being in the moment’, right? Saying whatever pops into your head. Because that’s ‘being real’, man.
But ideas don’t materialize out of thin air the minute you start talking. They come from somewhere.
Words come from all the images, experiences, and thoughts hanging out inside your head.
The best way to prepare for spontaneous speaking is to provide your brain with the kind of content you’d like your mouth to produce when talking ‘off the cuff.’
Ever notice how easy it is to pick up and repeat catchphrases and lines from your favorite movies and television shows? You can do the same thing with great speeches, great books, and great thoughts!
Reading Prepares You to Speak on Any Topic
When you consistently expose yourself to superb content, that content takes up residence in your head. Pretty soon, it starts to come out in your speech as well.
Remember memorizing poems, literary passages, or scripture in school? Though not always well-explained, the idea behind memorization is that, by committing the words to memory, you will have ready access to the phrases and thoughts the passages contain.
In The Lost Tools of Learning, mystery writer (and Oxford grad) Dorothy Sayers explains the importance of memorization and recitation of literature in schools: it lays the groundwork for persuasive writing and speaking. Reading her books — books she considered to be lacking in literary merit, by the way — it’s impossible to miss the multitude of literary references and quotations. No Wikipedia searches for her! These references spring from the literature she absorbed during her challenging education.
Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail can be a nightmare for high school and college students tasked with identifying all the literary allusions, but its powerful rhetoric is undeniable even when forced upon folks as a class assignment. And, sure, you can use SparkNotes or Wikipedia or even a plain old Google search to help you figure out all the quotations and references, but I assure you that MLK, Jr. was relying on his memory when he crafted that letter from his jail cell.
Great speakers and writers consume literature, philosophy, history, theology, sociology, political science, current events, etc. They live and breathe great works, reflect on them, and commit them to memory … ready to be summoned whenever the occasion requires.
Reading Really Works
I’ve always liked to read, but about six years ago I challenged myself to read everything in the Western Cannon — the “great books” that show up repeatedly in the works of renowned thinkers, writers, and speakers. Since starting this quest, I’ve barely made a dent in the list, but I’ve seen my ability to analyze and analogize skyrocket.
This isn’t my way of saying, “Hey! Look at me! I’m so great!” Tackling these classics is not always enjoyable or easy. Some books have made me question my resolve. (Yep, I’m looking at you Moby Dick and The Histories.) And some have beaten me time and again. (Maybe the third time I try to read Ulysses I’ll actually make it past the first ten pages.) But, most have been incredibly accessible with clear contemporary relevance. Every single one has added to my understanding of the human condition in all its permutations.
Preparing by reading pays off. I’ve discovered that words, examples, comparisons, and contrasts to any situation are retrievable at a moment’s notice.
And, because all these books can be found for free at a local library, online at Project Gutenberg, or via various smartphone apps, everyone can acquire their own amazing mental database.
Okay, so maybe reading the whole Western Cannon is a bit out there. But socialize with Shakespeare and his witty retorts will spring readily to your lips. Hang out with Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill and you’ll be able to access their rhetorical flair on the fly. Pick any author/speaker/thinker you admire and memorize one or two of their most electrifying passages.
Prepare by reading, and, the next time you find yourself speaking spontaneously, powerful words will come to you effortlessly.
No Wikipedia search required!
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Which great books or speeches inspire you? Join the “Great Conversation” in the comments below!