With shaking fingers, a student chose a topic among the jumbled mess of rolled papers in my bag. He then went to the center of the room and began to speak with a faltering voice, his eyes darting to and fro nervously until he couldn’t think of anything else to say. This goes on for a long time –he and his classmates engaged in a staring game until the timer buzzed.
I’ve been teaching my class improv speaking these days and this is a common scenario. Improv or improvisation is the ability to perform without any preparation. It’s no wonder Chinese students have a hard time learning this stuff because their education system doesn’t allow anything like this. The thrust is to memorize, not to learn, to do what you’re told, not to question. So to think upon the balls of their feet, to whip up and expand a topic in a nanosecond is anathema to them. They’ve got to unlearn everything that’s been fed to them which is –gods! tough because they tend to cling tenaciously to the skirts of old ideas their teachers taught them and I have to pry their fingers off one by one. But it’s not only Chinese students who are scared of improv. To anyone who’s terrified of public speaking, what more of a nightmare could you ask for if you’re asked to speak on a topic you just knew a minute ago?
But I’m here to tell you that there’s nothing to be scared of. You just blew that monster way out of proportion with your imagination. The truth is we have been doing improv everyday of our lives. When you talk with your friends, you don’t have a rehearsed script right? When you drive to an unfamiliar place, you don’t practice how you’re going to get there in your bedroom. You just do. Whenever something unexpected happens (and that’s always), what do you do? Improvise.
Shit, I’ve spilled juice on the cuff of my shirt. Roll it then.
Our PC (or Mac, if you prefer) isn’t working for our presentation. No problem. Here’s the whiteboard and a marker.
I’ve got no instruments to make music with. Here’s a table and your hands. You can whistle too right?
Improv = creative problem solving
To go through life, you will need a lot of this.
But how can this improve your public speaking skills (besides joining Toastmasters)? Well, the more you practice improv the less terrified you’ll be of speaking spontaneously in public (and let’s face it, sooner or later this will happen). Here are some tips I’ve taught my students and am now going to share them with you.
- Decide on the tone of your speech. Is it serious, funny, passionate or sad? Let’s say the topic is about hair (and I’ll continue using this example all throughout). I then decide I would definitely want my talk to be funny so that means I’ll only be using humorous content.
- Decide on the theme or your creative interpretation or take on the topic. So how can I be funny with the topic of hair? I could talk about my experiences in finding hair in my food at the restaurant and that it often comes in all colors, texture and sizes –long, short, curly, kinky, red, brown or even purple.
- After browsing through many Toastmasters sites, I’ve come across a way Toastmasters effectively deliver their idea during improv. It’s called PREP.
P- oint (introduction)
P- oint (conclusion)
- Telling stories is a great way of making your topic long especially if they’re drawn from your own experience. You feel more sincere and natural because it happened to you. People respond more to stories and when they walk away, it’s more likely they will remember what happened to you in the toilet than your talk on Darwin’s theory of evolution.
But you won’t suddenly become an overnight speaking sensation on these tips alone. Like everything else, you’ve got to practice. “Stage time! Stage time!” 2001 world Public Speaking champion Darren LaCroix would say. I didn’t get to where I am now, confident and comfortable in speaking in public (although my voice will still shake a little). I used to be scared. Then I became a teacher which requires speaking in front of people for at least 4-6 hours a day, 5 days a week. That’s a lot of stage time. So even if it’s with family or friends, as long as it’s a breathing person, practice.
And here I leave you with a funny improv toastmaster video and some topics my students have made themselves (try using PREP on it, if you can).
- Mia went shopping with her friends. (??!! I know. Seriously)
- You like dog. Why?
- If you’ve got Doraemon’s (he’s a cat with round fists in an old Japanese anime) hands, what would you do?
- Which came first –the chicken or the egg?
- If you were a spy who has lost your cover and diplomatic immunity, what would you do?
- I like sleeping.
And last one, my all-time favorite.
- I am 18 and I really like to play with myself.
Here’s an awesome site on public speaking with lots of great resources and materials: Six Minutes blog
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