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Attributes of a Great Speaker: Improvisation

Hi, Speakers!

We’re continuing our Attributes of a Great Speaker series this month with another skill that can help break down barriers and help you think on your feet when you're in front of an audience: improvisation.

Why improvisation?

In a previous sales kickoff at work, we had a local improv troupe host beginner improv classes to change up our ways of thinking. I loved seeing colleagues try something new, give themselves permission to be silly, and also embrace a feeling of discomfort in some of these exercises!

What does improvisation have to do with public speaking? Great speakers consider their audience, can take in information, and react to it in a way that serves your audience.

Being familiar with situations where you'll have to think on the spot can improve your resiliency as bumps come up within a time where you’ll be speaking in front of others (whether that’s at an Atlassian event, giving a presentation, facilitating a brainstorming session, or even giving a toast).

Today we’re going to focus on two introductory exercises/games for beginners, and connect them to how you can feel more confident in anything that’s being thrown your way. Whether it's Zoom not working for a meeting you're facilitating, a stiff audience, a presentation with some missing pieces, unexpected surprises, or whatever comes to mind, perhaps you'll find lessons in both of these games!

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1. Yes, and

This “exercise” or rule is all about saying yes. You’re taking what someone else has offered, accepting it, and expanding on their idea within the same narrative.

In this exercise, you can provide a setting, such as planning a party. A group member will begin the party by saying what they are bringing, and each following member will say “Yes, and….” to add to the party planning. Try to avoid saying "no", shooting down someone else's contribution, or ending the current thought or line of communication.

How can this help with public speaking?

Things are bound to go wrong during a presentation—your slides don’t work, the audio goes out, the audience is cold or bored, you name it. The best presenters and facilitators are resilient and quickly accept the situation, pivot or respond to it, and in the best cases, add to it or use it as a point of humor.

Acceptance, moving forward, a mindset of inclusivity, and understanding that things might still look different despite our preparation helps us to be better prepared in the moment and to serve our audience well.

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2. Story, Story

This exercise is all about telling a narrative and embracing the bumps along the way to your destination.

  • In a group of storytellers, the first storyteller provides a setting for the story and then points to the next person to pick up from the last word.
  • Then, the next storyteller completes their sentence and begins a new one until the conclusion of the story.

How can this help with public speaking?

Many times when we give presentations or talks, we have a specific idea of how it will go. We get into our power pose, we prep emotionally for the talk, we expect a certain subset of questions during a Q&A, and we hope that our efforts will be received well.

In a tumultuous story filled with plot twists, surprises, and offbeat resolutions, the story is the journey as much as the final destination.

What if we were able to embrace our performance and time in front of others by bringing them through a journey? What if the journey didn’t seem as we expected? By embracing a more open mind to the narrative, we’re able to better adapt to respond to our audience, and to accept what success could look like in different forms.

How about you?

Can you recall a moment when a great host or speaker was able to successfully pivot in a moment of improvisation to serve you within the audience?

Was it a moment of comedic relief, humanity, or thoughtfulness? Did it make an impact on you and change your mindset on what it means to have a great presence in front of others?

Or, have you played other improv games that you could see applying as well? I’d love to hear!

Also, if you have an idea for an attribute of a great speaker you'd like to expand on, let us know in the comments 👇🏼 or write your own post and use the tag #great-speakers. 🙌🏼

2 comments

G subramanyam Community Leader Nov 08, 2021

YES, the tip number 1 sounds interesting to try. The Point#2 "story...story" is an age old yet always pay off technique in my training sessions. 

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Great article, thanks for sharing @Sharon Tan !  I tried the 'yes, and...' and I agree it was a great exercise that helped everyone feel included. I'm a big fan of storytelling and in my experience, they work better when they're short, and well structured. Using sense of humor (appropriately) is one of the best ways to make an event memorable.

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