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Ad-libbing vs. Scripting your Presentations: The Larry David Law

Presenting in a professional environment demands a lot of tedious work. Understandably, no one wants to look unprepared when they get up in front of a crowd of their contemporaries, underlings, or worse yet, their superiors.

Because of this natural fear, we prepare cautiously–and perhaps brood nervously–on how to make the best impression possible.

We responsibly rehearse and perfect our talking points, but memorizing a speech is not the end goal. We aren’t robots, and we don’t want to be seen that way. Having a personality is a prerequisite for being well liked, therefore as much effort as we put in, sometimes we need to devote time to seeming at ease and letting our true self show.

The wildly successful sitcom, Seinfeld, was the result of Larry David's superb screenwriting.
The wildly successful sitcom, Seinfeld, was the result of Larry David’s superb screenwriting.

Seinfeld co-creator and longtime head writer sparked two very different, very successful television shows. Seinfeld, which is regarded by many as the greatest sitcom there ever was (or ever will be), has received countless accolades for its outstanding writing, over which Larry David toiled as the show’s head writer for the vast majority of the series. Because of this, the dialogue of the show is memorable, hilarious, and perfectly delivered, especially that of George Costanza, a character modeled after David’s real-life neurotic ridiculousness.

When David finally waved goodbye to Seinfeld, he began a new show, HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, which has become a cult classic, and in many ways is superior to his previous project. However, unlike the carefully crafted script of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm is almost totally improvised.

Both shows have different appeals, and are therefore successful for different reasons, but which one is superior, and how can we learn from the two when crafting our presentations.

When up in front of a crowd of respected peers, we want to come off as brilliant and ingenious as Seinfeld, but we also want to seem as effortlessly charming as Curb Your Enthusiasm. How do we find a balance?

Well, knowing how comfortable you should be with ad-libbing a portion of your presentation may require some self-analysis. Are you a comfortable, experienced speaker? If so, chances are you may already be working some off-the-cuff remarks into your public speaking engagements, because you’ve got enough experience to effectively think in the moment.

If, however, you’re new to speaking in public, or if you’ve been doing it for a long time and it still makes you uncomfortable, it’s likely that carefully planning and scripting your presentation is more beneficial to you.

I had a management job for a couple of years in college that required me to run meetings and address my staff on a near-weekly basis. This at first made me a bit nervous, and to cope with this, I’d spend a bit of time before I’d have to address them thinking about what I was going to say, writing down talking points, etc.

As the job progressed, I, of course, got more comfortable leading meetings and speaking to the staff. Eventually, I wouldn’t even blink–much less need to prepare–before getting up in front of my 20+ staff.

David’s career is comparable, and a valuable lesson into reaching this balance. The heavy reliance on improvisation seen in Curb Your Enthusiasm comes after nearly a decade of writing for a sitcom. It’s not as if David was just born with a sense of how to improvise, it came after a long time of growing comfortable with it.

So if you’re uncomfortable winging a portion of your presentation, don’t force it. Even if you may seem a little less natural or a too rehearsed, it is most likely a natural part of getting used to being up in front of an audience. First, become comfortable in your own skin during presentations before you go to this next level; your presentations will undoubtedly benefit from it.