Aside from participating in Toastmasters, the most beneficial activity I have done to improve my speaking was to take a couple of improv classes several years ago.
The idea of speaking without preparation may be terrifying to you. It’s still not my favorite thing to do, but practicing improv in class, in Toastmasters and even in professional speaking has helped me to connect with my audience and, much to my surprise, has reduced my pre-speech jitters.
Prior to taking improv classes, I was a bit stiff as a speaker, primarily because I would try to say my speeches exactly as I had written them. This created six main problems:
1. Stilted, non-conversational language. What looked good to the eye wasn’t always good to the ear. My sentences were often too long and my phrasing wasn’t always how I spoke.
2. Too slow rate of speech. Because I was trying to access exact phrasing from my memory, my rate of speech was a bit slower than my normal conversational rate.
3. Unfocused eye contact. My eye contact was often an unfocused gaze as I was sometimes “reading” my speech by visualizing the words on a page.
4. Inauthentic emotions. Part of me wasn’t present in the moment.
5. Increased “blank-outs.” Because I had taken my brain down the well-worn path of saying my speech only one way, if something got me off-track, I had no alternate paths to get back on track.
6. Unwillingness to change direction to suit the audience’s needs. Sometimes an audience needs something a little different than planned. If you doggedly “stick-to-the-script” you can’t adjust on the fly.
Improv techniques helped me on all counts, plus it gave me a confidence that I could deal with change, a “yes, and” attitude, of acceptance of whatever happens during a presentation and using that to forge a connection with the audience. For example, at a recent presentation, my PowerPoint presentation went wacko, so rather than getting all flustered, I accepted it and just did more audience participation.
How can you improve with improv? How can you practice?
Here are a few ideas:
- Join Toastmasters. Part of every meeting is a time for “Table Topics” where a few people answer a question with no prior preparation.
- Take an improv class. Google “improv classes” for your area. My husband I made a “date” out of taking improv classes together. We went to Stevie Ray’s Improv Company
- Don’t write out your speeches. Practice and speak from brief, keyword notes.
- Make fun of stuff. When you are watching a TV show or a movie, or even reading a Facebook post, come up with a comeback. This can be a fun group activity, too.
- Practice with a friend. Try coming up with a silly story, going back and forth, each saying one sentence. No pre-planning the story line.
- “Read” a book to a small child (who doesn’t yet read) by making up a story to go with the pictures. Ignore what is actually written.
- Practice using the phrase “yes, and” with people, even if you disagree with them. The idea is to not negate a suggestion or person, to not block them or their ideas, but to accept and move forward. A “Yes, but . . .” response may sound like you are agreeing, but the “but” negates the “yes.”
A personal example . . .
Shortly after I learned about the “Yes, and . . .” concept, I ran into a woman visiting my church for the first time. I asked her what brought her to the church and she said she wanted to get her kids into religious training. She said, “It doesn’t matter what religion. They’re all the same, right?” Well, the old me would have said, “WHAT?? ARE YOU CRAZY? RELIGIONS AREN’T ALL THE SAME!” That would have blown her out of the church! Thankfully, I took a breath, nodded, and said, “Yes, many religions have similar philosophies, such as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We then had a pleasant and engaging conversation, and I kept the door open for dialog.
Improve your speeches and your conversations with Improv!