Three ideas from improv to develop your speaking

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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  1. Hi Olivia

    As always great food for thought!

    Thank you


  2. Olivia,

    Thanks for sharing this post. Very insightful. This is definitely one area where I can always use improvement.


  3. Hi Olivia,

    Great post. Just this past Tuesday I started doing a beginners improv course (weekly for 8 weeks) to help me in my public speaking.

    One idea that has stuck in my mind from the first session is too let go of the idea that you control the outcome (we were working in pairs quite a bit). In this way you are more open to go where the audience wants you to go – similar to your ‘advance’ or ‘expand’ feedback.

    Oh, and that failure happens – lets be kids again and explore stories and narrative whether we fail or succeed :-)

    We had to repeat the motto at the start: “I suck and I love to fail.” It got us in a playful state and willing to experience different things.

    Looking forward to learning more.


    • Hi Leon

      Thanks for adding what you’re learning at your improv course. It sounds great.


  4. Olivia

    Totally agree. I had a big aversion to acting as well. But improv is very liberating for me. I have a natural ability to react quickly to situations and this can be tested and developed in improv exercises, like the TheatreSports format.

    Improv is great fun and certainly a good skills for presenters to learn. I also use it with corporate groups to good affect. I have written a couple of articles below which supplement your article.

    All the best,
    The One Minute Presenter

    Good business presenters are performers. Learn how to stretch your skills.


    Improvisation is a key presentation skill you need to learn

    • Thanks Warwick for adding your links, Olivia.

  5. Hi Olivia – good post about the value of improv for speakers. One important point I would add, as a former actor, is one of the first things all improv actors learn: “no” is not allowed in improv!

    When you are partnered with someone on that stage and they toss you an idea, you ALWAYS go with it. You might take it in a totally different direction, but you keep taking it forward. If you watch a show like “Whose Line is it Anyway?” you’ll notice they always keep things moving forward, even when it gets ridiculous (which is quite often). For example, if your partner starts with “What was up with your brother today?” and you had something in mind to say about a female, you can come back with “That’s not my brother, that’s my sister!” But you don’t just say “I don’t have a brother.” Refusing to catch the pitch from your partner in an improv situation simply stops the whole thing cold.

    This concept of “saying no to ‘no'” is good practice for the Q&A part of any presentation one might give as well. Being open to what the audience is asking almost always ensures that you will give a response that is more relevant and respectful.

    I enjoy your blog and insights – keep them coming!

    • Hi Allison

      Thanks for adding your insights. I was introduced to “saying no to no” as the concept of “Yes, and…”. I thought that it could be a useful strategy for handling hostile questions but I didn’t want to write about it before I had tried it out myself. So thank you for adding your experience.

      To others: Dilly Ditton has written a good post on this


  6. Unfortunately, lots of people are too keen on writing down enormous amounts of notes before any presentation. The sad thing is they try to learn the notes by heart.
    It would be great if we could reach those people and convince them to stop being so uptight about public speaking and actually have fun

    What do you think ?

    • Hi Bogdan
      I agree that many people have too many words in their notes. It’s because they’re scared of forgetting something, scared of having a mind blank, scared of not being able to form a logical sentence when they’re under pressure. Ultimately they’re concerned that they’ll make a fool of themselves.

      I think you’re in the lucky minority of not being scared and so enjoying public speaking :-).

      Back to people who write too many notes – what I try and do is give them strategies to help reduce their anxiety about these things happening. Once their anxiety reduces they’ll be able to have less notes.


  7. I don’t think it’s just about genetics and how you’re raised. I think it’s also about opportunity and choice.
    Now, in my view, the best cure for anxiety is enthusiasm : if you feel truly proud and excited about the message you are trying to deliver, your instinctively diminishes.

    Think about messengers that would run for days in a row to deliver a message to the kings. They were just random people and they were granted audiences with kings. What made them so confident, what made them not get state fright ? It’s easy: the acknowledgement of the importance of their message.

    So this is what everyone should done: get uber-excited and enthusiastic about the message. Confidence is just a side-efffect.

    • Hi Bogdan
      I do agree that focusing on the importance of your message and your enthusiasm for getting it across is one way to reduce anxiety. But I also know that for a lot of people I work with it’s not enough. I work with them on their self-talk, and help them to find more empowering ways of talking to themselves.

  8. Hi Olivia
    The only problem with visiting your site is that I find article after article that I want to read. LOL

    This sounds like the Topics session that Toastmasters use.
    I’ve always been able to think on my feet and turn a Topic into a speech by giving it a purpose.

    The courses sound great and if I ever find the time… who knows.

    • Hi Keith

      Sorry about your problem :-).

      Lucky you being able to think on your feet – for me it’s been a learnt skill. It’s been a while since I was in Toastmasters, so things may have changed, but I found the improv exercises we did on this course had an impact far beyond doing Table Topics in Toastmasters.