President Tom Kirkman Wings It (Should You?)

President Tom Kirkman Wings It (Should You?)


“‘Wing it? That’s an interesting communications strategy, Seth.” – President Tom Kirkman, “Designated Survivor” (Netflix)

Kirkman caught an unexpected opportunity to speak to potential supporters during the third season of the popular political thriller. With no time to prepare a speech, he takes the mic and goes for it. He “wings it.” Or does he?

His first presidential campaign has just begun and he has a myriad of hurdles to overcome. Among those is a dirty player, his opponent Cornelius Moss. Moss sabotages Kirkman’s scheduled event, forcing Kirkman to regroup. He learns about a protest and gains an opportunity to speak extemporaneously.

Seth Wright (played excellently by Kal Penn), the White House Press Secretary, suggests the president wings it. Wright knows what the president is capable of doing in this context. A good adviser wouldn’t risk failure on the national stage. He is confident President Kirkman can, in fact, wing it.

Periodically, I hear this at American Speechwriter. There are times when a speaker with a compelling message can wing it. There must be either immediate news or some other turn that draws the speaker to speak extemporaneously.

You might say, “I’m just telling my story. That’s why I don’t need a script. I’ve told it a hundred times.” You’re probably right. But you aren’t winging it. While it isn’t scripted, it is a speech you know. The particular words might change from speech to speech, but your story does not.

What’s Winging It?

To wing it. We hear of great speech makers winging it. They show up unscripted and unrehearsed and receive massive standing ovations. Should you wing it?

Winging is zero prep, or at least, not completing the intense requirements of speech writing and delivery practice. There’s no collaborating with a speechwriter, working back and forth to hew a strong message. Maybe you sketch some notes or work through ideas quickly.

When winging it, you still need to control your message. You are still following good communications principles. Decide what you want to accomplish with that speech and aim accordingly.

Did Kirkman wing it? Let’s pretend it was real life, not a scripted TV show. Yes and no. On the one hand, he didn’t have a prepared script. Not at all. He could’ve pulled out the one he intended to give at the event he was scheduled to speak at, but he didn’t. He did, however, know his message. The words he made up on the fly, but his message was something he’s been thinking about.

Naturally, because this is a Kiefer Sutherland-starring show, he delivered it perfectly, without hesitation.

What matters isn’t whether you wing it, or that speak from the cuff, the heart, or shoot from the hip. What matters is that your speech is honest, however well-prepared, and that your goals and message are effective.

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