Lessons from Improv

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I just completed a Beginner’s Improv course, going way out of my comfort zone.  Even though I preach the importance of preparation and practice, there were a few things I learned that can be applied to public speaking, especially if you’re presenting as part of a team:

“Yes and” vs. “Yes but.”   “Yes and” speakers advance the presentation’s story.  “Yes but” presenters drag it out.  “Yes but” often comes out when one presenter answers a question, and another presenter is thinking, “OK, that was a decent answer, but I usually answer that question a little differently, so I’ll deliver my answer too.”  The two answers are similar enough, so the presentation grinds to a screeching halt.  A “yes and” presenter add something new to the answer.  As my instructor said, "'Yes but' people are jerks."  Don't be a jerk.

Respect your scene partner. We learned that even though one character in a scene may have power over another (a parent and child, for example) the actors playing those parts are equal.  Too often, I see presentation teams caught up in their own hierarchy, where the senior executive feels she needs to fill every pause and answer every question, leaving junior level folks afraid to speak for fear of being corrected with a “Yes, but.”

Jump in.  Declare things.  Own it.  I struggled with this in class, but I think it’s easier to do in a presentation. During my rehearsals with clients, the best material is often what’s said sitting around the boardroom table, when I ask a speaker to explain a text-heavy slide in plain English.  That’s when speakers tend to blurt out a beautiful, jargon-free declarative sentence. “We innovate mission-critical systems with key stakeholders to ensure best practices that result in better health outcomes” becomes “We help people feel better.”  The best stuff is usually what comes out of your mouth when you’re not over-thinking it by adding unnecessary fancy words that don’t advance your story.

Many thanks to my fantastic Improv instructior and supportive classmates at the Brave New Workshop Student Union in Minneapolis.

Look for opportunities in your next presentation or meeting to jump in with a “yes and” - no matter where you are in the office hierarchy.  Let me know how it goes!