What Speakers Can Learn from Improv

If you’ve never struggled with public speaking, or struggled to sit through a bad public speaker, you are in a fortunate minority. For many, there’s something about the spotlight that feels unnatural. It’s a real challenge. That feeling is going to reveal itself in your body language, your tone, and the conviction with which you deliver your message. And that’s just if you stay on-script. It all adds up to a presentation that loses your audience and betrays the objectives of your message.

Comedians are no strangers to the stage. The most successful work their audiences into a borderline euphoric state. For the true masters, it might seem like the jokes don’t even matter. Conversely, to a person, every standup comic is painfully familiar with “bombing.” Whereas a poorly delivered speech might be met with tepid applause and a short shuffle off stage, their craft invites the jeers and heckles. Those are the nights they learn most about their acts though. Sure, it’s brutal, but that kind of visceral feedback will make their set better.

Regardless of the outcome, it’s obvious that comics have a strong connection with their audience. What’s the difference? The expectation of laughter is certainly enough to hold someone’s attention, but there’s more to it. Many comics, if not most, got their start in improv troupes. Why does that matter?

“Yes, and…”

It’s prime law of improv. And it’s a powerful one. The word no is not a part of the improv comedian’s vocabulary. “Yes, and” means that you accept the premise of your stage partner as part of the reality you’re creating no matter what, and then you build upon it. The same applies when you receive audience input. Take their prompt and create the scene. It all happens in seconds. There is no time for doubt, there’s no time to step back and consider the unnaturalness of it. “Yes, and” forces you to be completely present in the moment.

If you can just do that—be present and stay in the moment—you’ll notice manifold improvements in your public speaking. Quieting all that uncertainty and the thoughts swirling in your head, and just being able to focus on your message and your audience puts you nearer the summit than any other technique or trick.

To me, there’s still more to be learned from improv. Especially for public speakers. Drawing the straightest line from “Yes, and” to another important lesson:

Engage your audience
Improv shows don’t happen in huge performance halls or conference centers. Mostly, they happen on the nth floor of a random building with about 30 chairs max. The setting is intimate and the audience is there by their own choice, and on their own dime. There’s no hiding. Your scene setting will be reactive to how your audience is responding to you. If they aren’t engaged, you change things up, if they’re responding positively, you keep going with your premise. Listen and incorporate their suggestions—involvement begets engagement. All the while, you’re reading these cues live and making split-second decisions that can change the reception of your work.

Choose your words
Another pitfall of public speaking is rambling, never seeming to reach the point. That’s simply not an option in improv. The players need to be wholly clear on their premise and get right to the point of their joke or scenario. There’s a little room for exposition, but in general, comics need to be concise. As a public speaker, you should aim to do the same. Choose your words with direct purpose, making sure each sentence is doing work and serving your broader message. It makes it easier for your audience to follow along, and keeps you in control.

Be Yourself
Simple but important. Audiences can tell if you’re faking or hiding something. It’s so hard to come back from that. Rather than keeping them engaged or making them laugh, you’ll have to spend your time clawing back some of your credibility. Improv forces players to be authentic because there just isn’t the psychological real estate to do it well and shield parts of yourself from the audience. This doesn’t mean you’re giving a monologue about your childhood. It just means that you’re putting your whole personality on display. The cool part about watching a speaker do that is what it communicates to the audience. It invites them to be themselves as well.

What have been some of your most challenging public speaking moments? What approach did you take to overcome them? I’d love to hear more about your experiences and if you’ve ever tried improv to improve your speaking or business. Comment below or subscribe to my newsletter to keep up to date on the conversation!