I’ve just finished a four day improv course for speaking. I first came across improv as a tool for improving public speaking skills when I took part in PresentationCampLA last year. I was a little suspicious at first, because I associated improv with acting, and I think speaking is about being yourself, not acting. But, as I learnt more about improv, I realised I’d got it completely wrong. You can use improv strategies to develop your speaking skills.

IMG_3721 I found The Speaking School and decided that this would be the right course to help me incorporate improv into my speaking. The course is run by Fred Gleeck and Avish Parashar. Fred is an internet marketer as well as professional speaker, so you’ll notice that the website is rather salesy, but don’t be put off by that. Both Avish and Fred are very skilled at improv and importantly how to incorporate it into public speaking.

What is improv?

Improv is a set of exercises, principles and a “mindset” that has you think spontaneously and creatively (note this is my own definition that I’ve come up with after having spent 4 days doing it- feel free to add your own definition in the comments). By practicing the exercises you condition your brain to come up with ideas spontaneously and to use story structure, physicality, humour and emotion. The principles encourage and channel your creativity and the “mindset” has you give it a go and be willing to fail.

Here’s an example of a basic improv exercise. It’s called Ding! You start making up  a story and every so often another person rings a bell. When they do, you have to come up with something different. So let’s say you’ve just said:

“The man walked into the laundromat” “Ding!”

“He walked into a hotel” “Ding!”

“He walked into a nightclub” “Ding!”

“He walked into a black hole” …no ding so you continue with the story.

This is just one exercise. During the course, we’ve probablydid at least 30 different exercises.

How can improv improve you as a speaker?

I was thinking that improv would help me think on my feet and come up with quick retorts. Doing some of the exercises many times over will probably help me with this over time. But what I realise is that improv can help me generate ideas and improve my material during the preparation phase of working on a speech or presentation. In particular, I’ve learnt how I can make the stories I tell much more engaging. Avish coached me many times over the four days. Sometimes I worked on stories that I tell on our courses, sometimes on stories that I’d never told before. This was invaluable for me (as well as reminding me what it’s like being a course participant on one of our courses!) Here are some of the principles I’ve learnt:

1. Advance and expand

Everything you say should either advance the action or expand on a specific event or emotion in the story. If you’re expanding on a point, it should either be funny or add to the audience’s understanding or feelings for the story. If it doesn’t, chuck it out. Keeping the action of a story moving forward is critical.

Avish coached me by shouting out either expand or advance as I told my story. Sometimes this led me to expand on the story in a way that I’d never done before and led to some really funny lines that I’ll incorporate in the future. Other times, Avish had me move on (advance) so that the story reached its climax faster and with more impact.

You can do this as well with a partner, shouting out “expand” or “advance”. Although they’ll be certain times when it makes sense to shout expand or advance, it’s  not that critical. The point of the exercise is to play with your story in unpredictable ways and see what you generate as a result. If you’re a more advanced improv practitioner do add your views on this in the comments.

2. Demonstrate rather than describe emotion

Emotion is a great way of increasing audience engagement in a story. I had a habit of describing my emotions rather than demonstrating them. Avish also told me that I tended to smile during most of my story even when it wasn’t appropriate (apparently, it wasn’t as bad as the John McCain grimace – phew!) As I told my story, Avish identified the moments where I could demonstrate emotion and encouraged me to go over the top in acting them out.

This was another thing I learnt – when I’m practicing I can experiment with going over the top – and then pull back to what is appropriate for a particular situation. It’s a bit like driving a car which can go 300 miles an hour but most of the time staying within a more reasonable range.

If you know that you’re a bit buttoned-up when you’re speaking to a group, experiment with emotion in the privacy of your own bathroom. Then you’ll have more choices as to how you demonstrate emotion in front of the room.

3. Develop the characters in your story

So I knew that having characters and acting them out was a useful thing to do when telling a story, but I was doing it wrong. I have a story that contrasts the way my daughter Jessica spoke as an excited, naive 5 year old and then as a knowing 15 year old. But when I was being Jessica, I kept talking to the audience, rather than to her imaginary mother. As the 5 year old Jessica, Avish had me look upwards to my imaginary mother, and then look to the same level when I was the 15 year old Jessica.

I also played with using more than just my voice to imitate Jessica – but I think that needs some more work! Avish recommended that for experimenting with developing characters it’s useful to do it in front of a mirror rather than video yourself. You can play with different facial expressions and body movement and see immediately whether they work.

That’s just a smattering of what I learnt during this four-day improv for speakers course. I’ll probably write more in future posts. I’m writing this during a day-off from travelling and learning while in Las Vegas. Tomorrow we head off to the Grand Canyon, and our internet access will be intermittent, so I may take some time in responding to comments. But I’m really eager to hear from more experienced improv practitioners on how improv has improved your speaking.

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