Game Library: “Hesitation Speech”

Few improv games actively encourage Over-Originality but several provide an opportunity to sharpen your justification skills in response to unexpected or irregular stimuli. Comedysportz’s Silly Seer and the short-form game Columns (or Pillars) are of this ilk, but I’m particularly fond of the conceit explored in Hesitation Speech as it is a little more unabashedly theatrical and polished.

The Basics

You can package the central device in a variety of ways (I discuss some of my favorites below) but the basic strokes are as follows. One character is providing an important or passionate speech but they aren’t quite up to the task alone and so have enlisted a “speech writer” to feed them assists as needed. During their presentation, the featured speaker pauses at (in)opportune moments and their assistant quickly provides a random word or short phrase to fill in the blank. The speaker must then immediately accept and justify this disparate offer by weaving it into their narrative. Each hesitation is filled in a similar manner until the speech concludes successfully… or otherwise.


Player A assumes the role of a high school principal and has their assistant (Player B) standing just behind their right shoulder. Other team members have scattered throughout the auditorium to serve as students.

Player A: “Welcome back seniors! Here at Winslow High, we’re excited to help you launch into the next phase of your career. Now I know you might look at me and think…”

Player B: (in an audible whisper) “Broccoli.”

Player A: “…Broccoli – our principal is trying to serve us up a heaping helping of healthy broccoli that really no-one wants. But stay with me. This high school can be the garden of your tomorrow, and your teachers and I can be your gardeners. In no time at all…”

Player B: (in an audible whisper) “Cumulonimbus.”

Player A: “…Cumulonimbus clouds will part and you’ll be facing a bright future as fully grown learners ready to take on any challenge. This is your senior year! Now I don’t want you to believe everything you’ve seen on television about senior years…”

Player B: (in an audible whisper) “Martha Stewart.”

The Focus

Playful torture (shivving) rests at the center of this game, and you’ll want to balance the give and take between the speaker and their assistant. Too much time between hesitations can reduce the risk and pay-off of the dynamic; too many inexplicable assists can thwart the speaker from gaining any momentum or confidence.

Traps and Tips

1.) Thoughts for the speaker. It helps if there are high stakes for the occasion so that it’s clear that the speaker doesn’t have the opportunity to bale. A strong point of view and character energy will quickly become your best friends, allowing you to frame and justify the oddities likely to emerge from your assistant’s mind. Hesitations need to be clear and strategically placed. If the assistant is left guessing when they are needed, the game will quickly become unnecessarily clunky. Sometimes a physical tell, such as wiping your forehead or touching your cheek, can add clarity and a quirky character tick. It’s helpful to get a bit of a wind up before introducing the language device. Once the hesitations have begun it’s smart to make sure you have sufficiently justified prior choices (or at least set them up in such a way that you can weave them back into the mix later) before opening the door to several more random additions. Generally, commenting on the oddity of your assistant’s choices too much tends to undercut the game, although seeing the speaker sweat at least a little or throw a panicked look is definitely enjoyable. It’s also strongly preferable to immediately repeat the proffered word or phrase rather than hear it and then gradually work back to it later in your sentence as this latter approach undercuts the challenge.

2.) Thoughts for the speech writer. While the speaker may appear to have the more challenging task, good assisting is quite the skill in its own right. If you’ve consciously worked on reducing over-originality in your work, it can prove a little daunting to throw out offers that are just the right kind of random. If the speaker is struggling in a non-entertaining way, consider offering up words that are at least in the correct grammatical form – here’s a noun, just not the noun you thought you were going to get! If the speaker is joyfully managing, throwing out some true non-sequiturs can add to the playful mayhem. Just make sure to adjust accordingly as you see how the speaker is coping. My strongest advice is to get something out as soon as the hesitation cue has been triggered. Stalling in the assistant position can brutally stifle the action, so it’s preferable to offer up something (even if it might actually be a little more obvious than you would have liked) than wait those extra three seconds and have the narrative grind to a complete halt. Depending on the frame, it can also prove delightful for the assistant to have a clear point of view of their own: are they extremely officious, easily distracted, or perhaps even subtly undermining their boss’s agenda?

3.) Thoughts for the frame. I’m a fan of leaning into a high stakes or crucial moment as the prompt, such as a wedding toast, political debate or mayoral announcement. According to your venue and stylistic preference, you can either leap into the game with just a brief explanation or compose a scenic preamble where we see the featured speaker enlisting the help of their aide. The first approach works well in avowedly short-form contests, while the latter feels a little more scenic or narrative. It takes a little focus fenagling but you can also utilize this dynamic with more than one speaker, each with their own dedicated assistant, or possibly even have two assistants – one over each shoulder of the protagonist – alternating in a angel and devil kind of relationship. Make sure that the hesitation assists are well articulated and audible for both the character and the audience: there’s the cumulative pleasure of first hearing the impossible challenge and then seeing this impossibility incorporated into the text. And be on the lookout for the games that bubble up within and around the established format. There is a lot to mine in the relationship between the speaker and their aide, and unintended patterns frequently emerge in the aide’s utterances that can be joyfully exploited.

In Performance

I feel obliged to confess that the elegance of this game is a little easier to describe than deliver! The speaker and assistant need a rather deep rapport and trust to execute the mechanics of the game in a way that elevates rather than impedes the narrative. And yet, I still find myself drawn to this challenging dynamic as it involves such a high wire act of active listening, fearless risk-taking, and fierce justification. If your company has members inclined towards Over-Originality, it also provides a constructive outlet for this generally to-be-avoided tendency.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Over-Originality

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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