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Improv is for Experts


In all my years of coaching presentations, the most common concern I hear from professionals is actually not about the presentation at all.  It’s about the part when—either in the body of the presentation or immediately following—people in the audience or meeting get to ask questions. The presenter switches from prepared remarks into, well, UNprepared remarks. All of a sudden you’re in the land of extemporaneous speech. Improvisation.

Whether or not this is your biggest Achilles heel, almost everyone who has had to execute an important presentation or pitch, whether it be to three executives in a room or a crowd of hundreds, has faced this moment.  And no matter how fluent you are in the material, the angle, the goal, no matter how seasoned a presenter you may be, that moment can be daunting. It’s unpredictable, definitely, and also it can be difficult to maintain the same effortless (read: well-rehearsed) tone.

Because of my background as a theatre director, and because any event in which you’re speaking to people in a practiced way in order sell something is, of course, a performance, I often turn to fundamentals of improv for guidance. This is the same stuff Tina Fey does, I swear:

  1. Preparation is Protection. Remember: you are prepared. The most important thing you need for any question is information, and that, my friend, you have. In spades. You’re the expert. Despite the curveballs in tone and content that can accompany feedback, remember that you actually know. You’ve done your homework. Own it. Want to know why the most successful improvisers in the world still take class? This is why.
  2. Listen to the question. No, I’m serious- LISTEN to it. And then take a moment to think about it before you speak. There are no prizes for answering fastest. Taking a moment to receive and respond will increase the quality of your answer and decrease the chance of you going off message. I cannot tell you how many of us are so eager to respond that we mishear the actual question. Listen.
  3. Say YES. Arguably the fundamental tenant of improvisation, this does NOT mean that you should agree to whatever is the being asked of you. What it means is that you should keep the conversation aloft and keep the audience engaged and lines of communication open. In improvisation we often describe it as using YES, AND as an approach.

For a (very silly) example:

Audience Member: “This is garbage and a waste of my time!”
You (saying NO): “What???? Who do you think you are?”
You (saying YES): “Okay, clearly I’ve provoked a response. Let’s break this down.”

For a (less silly) example:

Potential Client: “I have a feeling this is not for us”
You (saying NO): “Okay, thanks for your time.”
You (saying YES): “Okay. Let’s break down what your fundamental needs are. I suspect our services would be great for you, but if not, I’ll try and guide you elsewhere.

  1. Breathing is the first thing to go when you get nervous and the easiest thing to do to get yourself back in the game. Luckily for us, breathing is an involuntary reflex, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get short and fast when we’re scared. We panic, and our reptilian brains think we are being chased by a giant bear. Even one conscious, slower breath can lower our heart rate and move our focus back to the present.

These tips may seem basic, but most of us- in part BECAUSE we’re nervous- quickly lose sight of them, or never think of them to begin with.

So remember:

Say Yes

And if nothing else, just repeat the mantra WWTD (What Would Tina Do).

Claudia Zelevansky has taught acting and directing at Yale University, Northwestern University, CUNY’s Queens College, Oberlin College, and Sarah Lawrence College, among others, and she has her own performance coaching business, CZ Coaching, which offers coaching for both actors and professionals of all kinds.