Improving through Improv:
Last Saturday afternoon, I found myself in a glorified dungeon, initiating and impersonating silly greetings, walks and dance moves before screaming at, or trying to reason with, incompetent dentists, poorly performing football players and lousy waitresses. Oh, I also think that I may have co-planned a surprise party where we invited lots of zoo animals and stand-up comics but also, regrettably, a politician. No day is perfect.
How was your Saturday afternoon? I had a great time, and learned some useful information in the process. As for my 11 other dungeon mates—seven of whom are members of our Emerging Speakers Bureau? At the risk of pretending to speak for them, I think that they would say the same.
Yes, I owe you an explanation or two right about now.
The 12 of us participated in a two-hour Intro to Improv class, sponsored by the Philly Improv Theatre. Shortly after arriving, we were led to the, well, bowels of the old theatre by the class facilitator, an exceedingly talented and positive, veteran (though young) improv artist named Caitlin Weigel.
Within the next two hours, as our inhibitions gradually subsided, we progressed sequentially from announcing our names in creative ways (I’m Ma-aaa-aaa-aa-att, while driving my right arm downward…okay, not all that memorable) to walking around the room in various gaits and postures (you’d have to be there) to producing three-line scenes. We concluded with longer two-player sketches.
So, why did our Speaker Bureau founder, Rae-Ann, recommend that we take part in this, and why might it be beneficial for professional speakers to have this training? Okay, I won’t speak for her, but here were some of my takeaways—in spontaneous, improv-style order—that may work for you:
1. Expanding your comfort zone is always a good thing. Improv, even to the level that we experienced it, allowed us to do something out of the norm for most of us. While I am (mostly) fearless as a writer and speaker, busting out dance moves and silly walks in a dungeon is not my idea of comfort. Yet, it was all to the good, and nobody got hurt in the process.
2. Reacting to the unexpected is a great skill to have, as even the control freaks among us know that not everything will always go according to plan. As speakers, being prepared for the expected is terrific but being open to the spontaneous (with wild cards ranging from audience questions, to technical, [and wardrobe] malfunctions, to having more or less time to speak than expected) is equally valuable. Perhaps, more so.
3. Trust: The class was, in many ways, an exercise in trust—trusting ourselves to be effective in somewhat random situations, and trusting our fellow improv mates to be there in those moments to catch us and boost us when needed. As speakers, it is very beneficial to trust those that surround us, including our co-presenters and our audiences. Being trustful enough to share the spotlight with others is another way to improve speaking skills.
4. It’s not really about me. When we started the class (at least from my point of view), much of my internal dialogue was about what I was going to say and do. As the class progressed, I found myself listening much more and reacting much better to what my scene-mates were doing and saying. As speakers, it’s important to be self-aware and equally important to be aware of your audience and what they are getting from your presentations. Too much self-consciousness is not a good thing.
5. CROW. Hopefully, I remembered at least the gist of the acronym that Caitlin gave us as a key to improv.
C = Character; R = Relationship; O = Objectives; W = Where You’re At
The heart of speaking, for many of us, is telling stories that will resonate with our audiences. We introduce characters that are in some kind of a relationship. Our objectives and motivations should be known to the audience. A great improv artist can do this seamlessly.
For example, Caitlin may say something like this: Cynthia, you are a customer in a restaurant. Matt (These are all fictitious names, right?), it just took you one hour to bring you her order, and you totally screwed it up. Okay, go…
In playing out this short sketch, there is already an everyday situation that the audience can relate to. Our mission is to use non-verbal gestures as well as our words…and especially our listening skills…so that we can do justice to this scenario. It’s an added bonus to quickly come up with a great physical or verbal moment, but it’s mostly about trusting yourself and your partner to mine the humor from the characters, relationships and motivations inherent in that scenario. Humor also comes from letting those around us shine and reacting to them…although it’s also okay to good-naturedly try to one-up them.
After two hours in the Improv Dungeon, I felt somewhat enervated, but I was also just a little bummed that the class had ended.
I still don’t know whether or not improv is my thing, but I am sure that incorporating some of the above advice will take my speaking to an even higher level.
How about you?
Matt Goldberg, the author of five books and writer/presenter of dozens of speeches, is also available to help you craft the article, speech (and even book) that will help you connect with your intended audience. Contact him via matt@tipofthegoldberg for all inquiries.