An Ad Lib Lesson

2 replies [Last post]


Memorizing a speech piece word-for-word requires a lot of practice. Dedicated competitors can memorize as many as 40 minutes of text for a tournament and somehow manage to recite each script without missing a beat – or a line. Then, there are competitors who, for whatever reason, choose to add lines to their piece that aren’t actually in the script.

This practice, known as “ad-libbing,” is frowned upon by most competitors and most judges. The term comes from the Latin "ad libitum," meaning "in accordance with desire." Basically, it's making up lines and saying whatever you want instead of adhering to the published piece. 

In our first years, we’re told that ad-libbing can get you disqualified, that ad-libbing is wrong, and that it is generally just bad news. Yet, students do it often, adding a quip here or a quick dialogue exchange there.

It’s one thing it you're a swing entry or if you’ve forgotten your next line and you’re stalling while trying to think of what to say next. But I’ve seen people make up entire scenes in the middle of a round, even in well-known and overdone pieces.

For some people, ad-libbing can certainly add humor to a piece or make it more personal. People have added in lines about current trends bound to make people laugh – like the Snuggie or a political election. And, yes, it’s possible that your judge might not realize you’re making something up, especially if he or she is a first-time judge.

But while ad-libbing might make you stand out, chances are it won’t be in a good way. In fact, quite the opposite – it makes it look like your piece is so weak that you have to add new material to it to make it worth performing. And if your judge happens to be a speech veteran who knows the piece you’re doing, you’d better hope you just added a couple of harmless lines instead of a full scene, or you’ll end up having a very unpleasant discussion with your coach later. If one of your fellow competitors notices, you can definitely chalk that one up as a big mistake.

In short, don’t ad-lib.  If you really think pretending to be Kanye West interrupting one of your characters to say the competitor before you “had one of the best speech pieces of all time” is going to make your audience crack up, fine – but instead of adding it to your piece, use it as a teaser intro.


The only time I ever thought ad-libbing was ever mildly acceptable was if someone froze during their piece, couldn't quite remember the exact line, but could flub one line to get back into the piece.

I assume if you want to create your own routine, then you should enter into an event where it is legal to write the piece.

People have added whole, new scenes? Whoa O.o

Post reply