The Art of the Ad Lib


By Richard Berman, CEO of VerbFactory

VerbFactory keeps our plate full with clients in a number of fields, but we’ve always stayed away from political consulting. It’s not that we don’t love politics (or have spirited discussions about major issues in the office), but it is a niche specialty area that we simply don’t cover. Nevertheless, there are important lessons that every organization can learn by watching how politicians communicate.

In January, President Obama generated significant attention during the state of the Union address when he delivered a one line zinger about his two national elections, digging at Republicans by stating, “I know because I won both of ‘em.” It was a great sound bite, and media outlets from around the country took note of his “off-the-cuff” dagger, which was directed at the Republican members of Congress. It may have been great political theater, but anyone who thinks that it was improvised should look deeper at how elected officials prepare for public speaking events and leave nothing to chance.

American politics has long been punctuated by short quips delivered by politicians to change the tone of a campaign or policy debate. But while most of these are delivered effortlessly, they are often scripted and rehearsed long before a candidate or officeholders steps up to the microphone. Spiro Agnew once referred to his opponents as, “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and Lloyd Bentsen demolished Dan Quayle in a vice presidential debate by telling Quayle, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Both of these were great lines that have long survived the men who uttered them – and both of them were written by professional speechwriters before being carefully practiced to come across as improvised. Agnew’s gem was penned by conservative wit William Safire, who later went on to write for the New York Times, and Bentsen reportedly practiced the line in a mock debate with advisor William Eckart

So what can non-politicians learned from this brand of verbal choreography? For starters, leave nothing to chance when it comes to talking to a reporter or addressing a large number of people. In more blunt terms, an interview was no time for original thought. Speakers need to be thoroughly prepared ahead of time so that they can deliver their knockout punches at the right time. This is just as important for a CEO on an investor phone call as it is for the founder of a startup tech company pitching a room full of potential funders.

Of course, one of the most important things is not only to prepare, but to make it look like you haven’t prepared. If Bentsen had insulted Quayle as part of his “prepared” remarks, he would’ve come across as petty, but because his line was delivered during a less formal part of the debate, he was immediately recognized as a rhetorical genius. Ditto for Obama’s line about winning two national elections, or President Reagan’s mock-exasperated “There you go again.” The reality is that politicians – at least the successful ones – have the ability to come across as charming and folksy at will, which is also a trait shared by top business leaders who know how to work a room.

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