Five Improvisational Acting Techniques That Can Make You a Better Speaker
Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Piccin
A version of this article entitled "Speaking Off the Cuff" appeared in Toastmaster magazine, a publication of Toastmasters International, a group dedicated to empowering its members to be more effective public speakers and communicators.
"Start talking before you know what you're going to say." That was the very first direction given to me by Michael Burns, Artistic Director of the Mop & Bucket Company, an improv troupe in Schenectady, New York.
To those of us in Toastmasters who work hard to deliver thoughtful, well-prepared speeches, that advice may sound crazy -- or at the very least, a recipe for disaster and embarrassment. But in the world of improv, spontaneity is crucial to success. With no script, no scenery, and no props to guide them, improvisers must find inspiration in their scene partners, their audience, and themselves. A word, a movement, a giggle, a frown -- these are all rich sources of information an improviser can draw on to build a scene. Capturing the value of these "offers" requires paying close attention and responding immediately, and that means spontaneity.
As an improv actor and Toastmaster, I see the parallels between the two worlds. An improviser must respond on the spur of the moment, speaking before an audience in an engaging and entertaining way, with no time to prepare and no foreknowledge of the topic. Toastmasters do that all the time in Table Topics, where they are asked a question and must respond by delivering an impromptu speech.
Even if you're not an actor, here are five improv techniques you can use to deliver more effective and entertaining Table Topics speeches.
1. Celebrate Failure. Burns tells a story of the circus performer who does a triple flip off the trapeze high above the crowd, soars gracefully toward her partner's waiting arms ... and then misses the mark and falls to the net below. Does she slink away in shame as the audience hisses and boos? Of course not! She leaps to her feet and executes a sweeping bow to thunderous applause.
Improvisers routinely practice the "circus bow" in classes and performances as a reminder that taking a chance and risking failure is the only way to tap in to the rich reservoir of creative ideas that lies within us. If we constantly monitor and filter our ideas, trying to suppress the bad ones while waiting for the good ones, we stifle the entire process.
Before your next Table Topics speech, make a commitment to yourself to celebrate failure. Focus less on delivering a flawless speech and more on nurturing your creative expression. What's the worst that can happen? No one is going to heckle you off the podium. On the contrary, they will envy your daring. You will appear more genuine and relaxed, and your audience will identify with you better and enjoy your speech more.
2. Be Spontaneous. In one of my favorite improv warm-up exercises, performers stand in a circle and collaboratively create a story, one sentence at a time. Someone begins with an opening sentence, such as "Yesterday I went for a walk." Each person adds a sentence in turn, and the story takes on a life of its own.
The key to creating an entertaining story is to make each sentence a direct consequence of the sentence that came before it. You can't prepare your sentence in advance; you have to wait to hear what the person next to you says. Overanxious newbies who think of clever plot twists ahead of time and save them until it's their turn invariably derail the story.
As in an improvised story, the key to a successful Table Topics speech is to embrace the spontaneity. Let your ideas flow and let each sentence follow naturally from the one before. Your reward will be an honest and entertaining speech.
3. State the Obvious. In one of my earliest improv performances, I joined my scene partner onstage as he began the scene without a word by shivering, stomping his feet, and hugging himself vigorously. Novice that I was, I watched for several seconds, unable to think of an opening line. Finally I simply said, "You look really cold." The audience exploded in laughter.
What I said wasn't funny or clever, but it was true, and it brought an honesty to the scene that the audience loved. In an improv scene, virtually everything exists in the imagination of the performers and the audience. Everyone has his own view of what's happening, and stating the obvious helps to bring all those disparate views into alignment. Furthermore, what's "obvious" to one person might be a delightful twist to another.
The same is true about a Table Topics speech. Each audience member develops an interpretation of your message. By clearly articulating key points you may think are obvious, you will help guide each listener's interpretation along the path you intend, while simultaneously ensuring the consistency and logical progression of your own thoughts.
4. Everything is an Offer. "Offer" is improv parlance for any piece of information that an improviser can use to develop or embellish a scene. "Everything is an offer," says Burns, meaning that any observation, thought, or emotion can be the seed from which an entire scene grows. You just need to be open to the possibilities and accept the offers.
In Tables Topics, you are asked a question and you must answer it. But everything is an offer, including not just the question itself, but the person asking the question, the manner in which it is asked, the room you're in, the mood of the audience, etc. Everything you observe or experience in that moment can inform your speech.
Suppose the question is, "What is your view on capital punishment?" If you have a view you can articulate on the spot, then do so. Otherwise, find some offer that resonates and follow through on it. You might say, "It's funny that you mention the word 'punishment' because my kids did something the other day…" and tell a story about them. Or how about, "Walking up here I felt like I was walking to the gallows…" and discuss your fear of public speaking. Anything can serve as inspiration for your speech, and if you speak with fluency, confidence, and enthusiasm, no one will care that you didn't actually answer the question.
5. Yes And. The one improv tenet that encompasses all others is "Yes And." Yes And means accepting whatever your partner offers, adding something to it, and giving it back. Your partner then does the same, and through this ongoing collaborative exchange, a scene flourishes. Finding offers to embrace is easy if you are looking and listening for them.
In Table Topics, you don't have a scene partner, but you’re not alone. Offers can come from many places, including your audience, your environment, and yourself. You can Yes And any of the external offers, and you can also Yes And yourself. That means embracing your own ideas and inspirations, building on them, and following them wherever they lead you.
Yes And is the guiding principle for an improviser, and it will serve you well in your public speaking career. However, practicing Yes And to maximum effect is only possible if you are willing to celebrate failure, be spontaneous, state the obvious, and remain receptive to the myriad of offers around you. The rewards are waiting, and the tools needed to realize them are within you.
Header photo by Thomas Piccin. View of Cape Town, Signal Hill, Table Bay, and Robben Island from the top of Table Mountain, South Africa.