Thinking on your feet…

Confidence in the Bentley household is currently quite high following two decent speaking gigs on the bounce.

I was lucky enough to get invited back to Exeter Castle this month to host ‘an evening with Sam Warburton’, and spent the following evening on the panel for ‘under the skin of sport’ with Olympian Annie Vernon and renowned author William Fotheringham.

When you are hosting an event or working as a panellist you do have to think on your feet and I’m going to blow my own trumpet with a ‘toot toot’, as I seem to be quite adept at immediate responses to unprepared challenges, known more simply as the ‘ad lib’.

My father always used to remind me ‘the most rehearsed line is the ad lib’ and it dawned on me that never a truer statement has been made over public presentation. I’ve been front and centre for nigh on ten years now hosting sporting hospitality, business events and the like and through time my confidence has grown no end.

I find, if it does go wrong, it’s best to have tools to distract or to take real ownership and allow folk to relax as they can see you’ve got this… I’ll outline a few strategies I’ve employed that may help.

Go out and do it!

There is no doubt that the best practice for getting up and speaking is just that – getting up and speaking. The nerves don’t go away but, with time, you learn to master them and appreciate they are part and parcel of presentation.

One thing that I really work on however is dealing with the unexpected. Audiences pick up on the energy you project and being able to confidently converse if you slip a line, have a tough question or stumble on your words is vital. This ability has grown by getting front and centre, getting it right or wrong and then learning from the wins and losses!


As the Armed forces often quote the 7 P’s (proper planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance). If you are prepared for things going wrong, you may well be the only person who knows when they do. If you have planned for slip ups and have a few coping strategies up your sleeve, you’ll be able to progress without a soul knowing! Another often used quote applies; ‘control the controllables’. If you have the time; rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and be prepared for whatever may happen!

Buy time

If, however you’ve not had the chance to get ready, work on a few tactics to ensure you don’t obviously drop the ball. Nothing will impact your audience more than a swift response to a question, heckle or mishap. I actively learnt a few phrases to dig me out of a stumble “I only open my mouth to swap feet” being a prime example. Having lines like this etched in my mind, I can buy vital time to think while covering my tracks.

Politicians are the masters here. You often see them repeat a question, pause for a drink or simply pause for a moment and collect themselves.

Through repetition and rehearsal, the ‘time buyer’ allows the unconscious mind to deal with an immediate challenge while presenting like a swan – graceful on the surface but flapping like sin underneath!

Brain training

When you’re up presenting there is a tendency to only think about what you’re doing in the moment. This is fine but I’ve worked hard to develop a two-track mentality whereby I’m in the moment but also thinking ahead. I’ve cultivated this in a couple of ways that both involve reading;

  • The Two Book Rule – I have a trashy novel and a business book on the go at the same time so that I’m always processing variant thought in my subliminal brain. I’ve founds this is a great tool in many ways, but it certainly helps when presenting! By having to recall and retain information from two very different sources I’ve found a real crossover when speaking.


  • The Children’s Books Rule – Having read a few of the Julia Donaldson books hundreds of times I know them close to verbatim (room on the broom is my strongest!) and I try every time to vary the sentences from the printed page without my 4-year-old noticing a difference. This also has the added benefit of making the bedtime routine a bit more entertaining as I think of ways to vary the rhyming structure.


So, there you have it. A few tips to help you when it comes to the ad lib!

  1. Get out there and do it
  2. rehearse
  3. prepare for the worst
  4. try some ‘out there’ brain training exercises!

I do hope you may have garnered something from these hints and tips but don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like to discuss in more depth. It’s good to talk and I’m always happy to share my experiences if they can help.

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Chris Bentley

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