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“That speech made me uncomfortable!”

The words came from Mohammed Ismaeel, SVP Marketing, CEMEA for VISA at he went up on stage to deliver his speech at the VISA CEMEA Leadership Meeting.

Mohammed was referring to the speech that I had delivered on the same stage just minutes before.

Now, many non-speakers might feel uncomfortable if someone goes up and referencing your speech as making them feel uncomfortable, but I smiled, because to me, as a professional speaker, the fact that my speech has made someone “uncomfortable” is a sign of success.

Mohammed continued from the stage: “A great speech should shake you up, make you think, move you outside your comfort zone. And that is just how I feel right now.”


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In the break after our speeches I went up to Mohammed and asked him to elaborate. He told me that as a VP of Marketing of VISA he instructs his agencies to come up with ideas that make him, as a client, feel uncomfortable.

He does that for the same reason he wants a speech to make him uncomfortable – he wants to be mentally moved. He wants to be pushed.

In my speech for VISA today I pushed the audience hard, and I did it because VISA is in the eye of the storm when it comes to change – “fintech” the innovation and disruption happening in the financial sector thanks to technology –  is almost mind-blowing and VISA is in the middle of all of that.

That means that VISA needs to be good at seeing, understanding and reacting to change.

Thus the reason that I was invited as the only external keynote speaker when 150 of the top managers of VISA at the VISA CEMEA Leadership Meeting at Waldorf Astoria, Ras Al Khaimah, UAE.

To make an audience feel uncomfortable is risky – but rewarding.

Done wrong and the audience can turn on you.

Done well and the audience gets moved.

So how do you strike the right balance of pushing without pushing too far?

First of all: Be very observant of how the audience is reacting.

Push gently first and then push slightly more and more until you feel you get push-back.

Second: It helps if you remember that the word “uncomfortable” comes from “comfortable” with a “not” infront of it. In other words, you are there to make them “not be comfortable”. I like that way of thinking more than thinking of “uncomfortable” as meaning: “causing or feeling unease or awkwardness” which is the dictionary’s definition of “uncomfortable”.

Questions to ask as a speaker before you go up on stage next time:

  • Am I pushing the audience far enough?
    and at the same time:
  • How do I make sure I do not push them too much?
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According to the dictionary the word “improvise” has two meanings:

1) create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation: he invited actors to improvise dialogue | [ no obj. ] : he was improvising to a backing of guitar chords.
2) produce or make (something) from whatever is available: I improvised a costume for myself out of an old blue dress.

Notice the description of the first meaning. It says “spontaneously” or “without preparation” (!) The distinction between the two words in fundamental to understand as a speaker.

I am a strong believer that a speaker should never go up without being prepared. To “wing it” as a speaker is not something to be proud of.

But I am at the same time a big fan of speakers being spontaneous. The ability to react to something someone in thge audience says, or something that happens during the speech is very, very valuable.

So one meaning of the word “improvise” should be avoided while the other meaning of the word “improvise” should be encouraged.

Let me go a big deeper.

I recently received feedback from a speaker I given a coaching session and she wrote to me that she had prepared too much, something that had hindered her from being her best.

She wrote: “I felt I was perhaps “too” prepared and some of the jokes didn’t come across the way it would when I normally do speak.I know in training/lecturing I tend to make my participants or students laugh at the silly jokes I make but its usually quite unplanned. “

I wrote back to her: “I do not think you should prepare less (God, the world doesn’t need more unprepared speakers!) but you should be more confident in LEAVING your prepared speech and improvise more and be spontaneous.”

So I guess that means that a great speaker is a speaker who goes up on stege “WITH preparation but with a willingness to be spontaneous” …

If you approach improvised speaking like then it is a good idea to learn how to become better at improvising, at being better at being spontaneous.

Last night I attended a session by Asia Professional Speakers Hong Kong, a network of professional speakers who meet to make each other better. One of the speakers were Kay Ross, a speaker and trainer in improve, who had a session on improvisation for speakers.

I learnt a lot, and after the speech I reflected over how the technique of “yes, and” (where a improv actor is “forced” to go with what ever the other actor on stage just said) could be used to handle hecklers or people interrupting your speech to disagree with you.

The best parts of many speeches is instances when the speaker left the script and was spontaneous. But being good at being spontaneous is a skill. A skills that can be practiced – dare I say: be prepared to improvise…