Think about the most memorable speech you have ever heard.
If you’re like me, your list of remarkable speeches is short.
But, your list of forgettable speeches goes on and on, like a keynote speaker in a dimly lit hotel ballroom who doesn’t know how to stop even after the rubber chicken has been consumed.
Not All Speeches Occur in Ballrooms
Being able to speak well is a skill that extends beyond formal speeches.
Knowing how to get your point across can make a difference.
It can make a difference in getting an initiative approved in next year’s budget, or convincing your partner to have trout instead of salmon.
And it can make all the difference in nailing down special testing arrangements for your child who has unique sensory needs.
Lessons from Improvisation
We are sometimes limited in the flexibility we have regarding the words we say.
Our time allotment may be too short to allow us to elaborate on points we think might make or break our success.
But no matter what we say, there are intangibles behind our speaking process that can make a difference.
I was sharing some tips with a friend recently about how to keep the essence of her originality while presenting information she needed the listeners to act on.
The power of improv training was one of those tips.
Because I love all you Spin Sucks people, I immediately (and spontaneously—this is improv we’re talking about after all) signed up for an improv class to refresh my memory.
Here are three classic improv principles and how they can help you present more effectively, even if you can’t change a word.
Go With Your Gut
The teacher’s exact instructions were “say the first thing that comes to mind” and “do the first motion that you feel.”
We played the classic improv game, “Zip Zap Zop.”
In the game, the participants are in a circle.
The first participant throws “energy” to a recipient of their choice, saying “ZIP” while clapping.
That participant then throws the action to another recipient, saying “ZAP,” and so on.
We didn’t know each other. We had just walked into the room as strangers 15 minutes prior. It was clumsy and awkward.
Maybe saying “zip, zap, or zop” alone is easy enough, but add to that making eye contact, clapping to indicate your intended recipient, being prepared to catch the energy again, and now you have a recipe for hesitating.
Unless you keep playing.
When you keep on playing, you learn to trust yourself.
Likewise, when you practice speaking, you learn to trust your words and body language, and you are that much closer to getting your message across clearly.
Sometimes our message is one which we anticipate our audience will disagree.
An exercise we do at Toastmasters is to give a “speech to convince,” and we are encouraged to adopt a position we don’t personally hold.
I gave my speech as though I were a pregnant anti-vaccine woman speaking to a committee of extremely pro-vaccine pediatricians and family practitioners.
(In my real life, I am an advocate for vaccines.)
It was my job in those moments to try to find some common ground.
In improv terms, I was looking for the “yes, and” opportunity instead of a “no, but” brick wall.
In an improv exercise, “yes, and” enables us to learn to help each other.
What not to do:
Paula: I just found out I’m off work tomorrow!
Partner: Too bad you’ll get behind on everything.
What to do:
Paula: I just found out I’m off work tomorrow!
Partner: Yes! And the Greek Food Festival will be taking place.
The second response provides a whole lot more latitude to extend the conversation.
It’s a stretch, I know, with my pregnant mom/pediatricians scenario, to find the “yes, and.”
However, I know that what I gained from “being an anti-vaxxer for 10 minutes” was that at the core of my motives was the love for my child.
It’s easy to blow off someone who feels differently or believes inaccurate things as ignorant or uncaring.
The “yes, and” concept is something that should underpin anything we do as communicators.
For the parent headed hesitantly to a tense IEP meeting, is there something they can bring to the table to help their child’s teacher better understand?
Perhaps by making accommodations for the child’s issue, it will make classroom management easier all around.
This TEDx talk discusses how “yes, and” can be part of your organizational approach.
Mistake? What Mistake?
The third principle of improv taught is “there are no mistakes.”
(However, we did receive a warning that it’s poor form to “pull a gun” in an improv scene because it’s the ultimate power imbalance. And I have to agree.)
Once, at a school board meeting, I had exactly three minutes to give a speech about a matter that was intensely significant to me.
I sat there debating whether to take my “cheat sheet” post-it with me to the lectern. Ultimately, I decided not to.
The school board members wouldn’t know if I didn’t say what I had planned.
I would be much more able to make eye contact and try to reach them non-verbally if I wasn’t fussing with a little slip of paper.
I would also be able to give the speech without my glasses on, which felt like a small liberation.
Mistakes and the fear of making them can be our biggest inhibitors.
They aren’t fun. They can be a bit embarrassing. But the world does, indeed, keep turning no matter what we do.
This time, the improv game we played section involved singing (yay).
The leader started off with a song about stars (let’s say “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”).
From there, another participant had to jump in with another “star” song or something that played off the Twinkle Twinkle lyrics.
(Like, “I Wonder Where My Baby is Tonight” by the Kinks playing off “how I wonder what you are.”)
Our class struggled here, too.
This activity required thinking, hard, while frantically reviewing songs in our brains, then having the courage to jump in and sing them.
But we did manage. And our teacher learned that run-of-the-mill, non-musical theatre people *may* not have quite the encyclopedic mental song libraries your typical theatre nerd has.
Your audience can’t read your mind and doesn’t know what you rehearsed five times last night.
Take a deep breath, and remember the motivations that brought you here in the first place.
Your Speech is a Gift
Just like the best conversations, a speech isn’t so much a one-way entity as an exchange, even if one person is behind a lectern and one or 1,000 audience members are facing them, just listening.
When our improv class exchanged imaginary “balls,” some people “golfed,” some shot “marbles,” and others pretended to struggle to heft heavy “medicine balls.”
The balls weren’t physical. They were in our minds. And the recipients immediately transformed them into what they were planning to throw.
Only you have the exact idea of what you plan to share.
Even if in theory it has repeatedly been presented throughout history, your version is uniquely yours.
The recipient is going to turn it into something new and different anyway. So, you might as well leave them recalling what made yours so memorable.
Do you have a presentation coming up, large or small, that has you anxious?
Think about applying these principles, and I’m betting you’ll walk away with a Zip (and maybe even a Zap or Zop) in your step!