For some, the mere thought of getting up in front of a group of people and presenting a speech is more terrifying than heights, snakes, or even death. Imagine how terrified those people would be if they were asked to get in front of an audience and speak with nothing prepared in advance – no script, no speech, no nothing.
Sound crazy? Well that is what Improvisational Comedians do every day. Improvisational (or “Improv”) Comedy is a form of theater where a group of actors take the stage with nothing prepared in advance and use audience suggestions to create instant comedy. If you have ever seen the popular television show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” then you have seen Improv Comedy.
The skills that allow an improviser to create instant comedy can immensely help any speaker to be more comfortable and powerful from the platform. Here are three reasons why, if you want to be a more effective speaker, you must learn how to be a great improviser:
1) Improv Comedy, at its core, is about self-expression. An Improviser has only himself on an empty stage. Every idea he puts forth comes from inside of him. The best improvisers realize this and trust their instincts and let their ideas flow out. Similarly, the best speakers realize that the audience is there to see them. Rather than hide behind other people’s ideas or style, they are 100% themselves as they speak. Many speakers make the mistake of taking acting classes to be more “dramatic” as they speak. The result is a speaker that looks fake and wooden. Audiences don’t want “dramatic;” they want natural. Practicing improv comedy techniques can help you be much more natural.
2) Improv Comedy is an interactive format. Improvisation may be the only art form where the audience is present at the time of creation. As a result, the audience’s needs, wants, and mood can be taken into account to direct the content. Great improvisers feed off of a crowd’s energy and build content the audience appreciates. The performer pays attention to the audience and makes subtle adjustments as she goes. Speakers would do well to adopt this approach. Most speakers prepare their speech in a vacuum and deliver it exactly as practiced. However, every audience is different. If a speaker pays attention to the audience as she is speaking, she can also make subtle adjustments to increase her effectiveness (adjusting pacing, energy, volume, etc) If you do this, not only will your speech be more powerful, but you will also develop that coveted “rapport and connection” with the audience.
3) Things will go wrong. A speaker who relies solely on what they’ve memorized will be easily thrown by the distractions that invariably happen. If time gets cut, or a cell phone rings, or a heckler demands attention, the speaker will have no response. To an improviser, distractions are just one more tool to use to make their point. A key improv attitude is to “go with the flow.” As a speaker, this attitude will allow you to be unflappable from the stage. You will be deemed a true professional, and audiences will admire your ability to handle interruptions.
These are just three simple ideas that are a powerful way in which improv comedy can make anyone a more powerful speaker. There are many more ways related to all aspects of speaking: content, delivery, storytelling, style, humor, etc, but these three are the perfect starting point.
If you aren’t ready to dive into Improv, then maybe you just want to make your audience laugh a little.
Make Them Laugh
In the delightful Broadway musical “Singing in the Rain”, there is a song called “Make em Laugh” which is based on this idea that the best way for any stage performer to build a bond with an audience is to use humor to bring a smile, or a laugh, to that audience. Well, that idea is not just valid for stage performers. It’s just as true when you begin to develop your style as a public speaker.
If you pick up any self help guide to how to be effective as a public speaker, one of the golden rules is to open with a joke. But guess what? That is not actually a hard and fast rule. Humor is the type of thing that works just as well about a minute into your presentation, halfway through or just about anywhere that you feel you are losing your audience.
Audience psychology is a funny thing but not in the “laughter” sense. The truth is that when you first begin to speak to an audience, they are probably listening to you. Most people are at least curious about you and what you have to say and will take interest in you if for no other reason than you are a new person up there in front of them. While there is certainly not a bad idea to open with humor, the time your audience needs a joke is when you have launched into your discussion and you look out to nodding heads or drifting eyes and you know that you are talking but nobody is listening. That is when humor brings the audience back to you and hooks them back into your presentation.
The biggest problem with a lot of public speaking situations is that you may be presenting ideas to the crowd. While an idea is a good thing, people have trouble staying focused on pure concepts for very long. That is why most good public speakers use illustrations, stories and humor to keep the audience focused on what you are talking about. And that is where a generous use of humor will help your public speaking style as well.
Humor has a certain effect on the human psychology that causes the listener to bond with the speaker in a unique way. To put that more simply, using humor in your presentation makes people like you. And when they like you, they want to hear what you have to say. There is just no getting around the fact that people will listen to, accept, understand and make their own ideas presented with humor far more readily than if your talk is dry presentation of material, even if it is important material.
But what if you don’t know how to use humor? Of course you can always just tell a joke. But canned jokes are just that, attempts to use someone else’s humor. They do work, (if it’s a good joke) but if the humor is not relevant to what you are talking about or to you as a speaker, it often is not as effective as it should be. The best humor is actually self-deprecating remarks as you speak. These are easy to come up with by simply using yourself as the subject of an illustration. For example, if this topic was part of your speech, you might say…
“You know it’s easy to get tongue tied and bumble around up here trying to use humor. But you folks won’t make a mess of it like I am doing.”
That isn’t even a very good joke. But because it is highly relevant, it is self deprecating and it’s a light moment in the presentation, it will probably get a chuckle. A chuckle is really all you are looking for. You are not trying to become a stand up comic up there. Humor that is too wild and designed to bring hearty laughter actually is distracting. You just want little asides that are of a humorous nature to bring your audience back to listening to you.
Listen to good speakers you admire and take note of how they seem to slip and out of humor easily and effortlessly and how quickly that build rapport with the audience. It will take some practice to get good at using humor as you speak. But it will improve your presentation style tremendously. And that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?
To developing your speaking skills and style….
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