Improve with Improv


For many years, celebrated actors and actresses have hailed the value of doing improvisational theater. But you can benefit from improv even if you’re not a budding Colin Firth or Cate Blanchett. And Toastmasters club meetings are a great place to practice!

Participants in improvisation create scenes without any advanced planning or practice. They do it off the cuff, often drawing on suggestions from audience members or other sources of inspiration to build their on-the-spot stories. Improv exercises—which are referred to as “games”—encourage the use of imagination, playful-ness, humor, personal connection and spontaneity.

Up-Close and Personal
Ultimately, say improv fans, the games boost your confidence and communication skills.

“You never know from one minute to the next what character, location or situation you’re going to find yourself in, so you learn to adapt quickly,” says Lisa Lockhart, ACB, ALB. “And that’s a big help in any business or social situation. In most of the games, we’re working with partners, so we get better at picking up clues from what’s being said or done, which helps us better harmonize with the other person.”

Make it Part of Your Meetings
Some clubs make improv a big part of their meetings. One such group is the club Lockhart belongs to—ImprovMasters in Culver City, California. Club members usually play a variety of games. The Improv Master chooses, explains and moderates the activities (sometimes with the help of books and websites).

The games are similar to Table Topics®, but the difference is that a member speaks on a Table Topic alone while improv requires spontaneous give-and-take with others. The LaughLovers Comedy club in Oakland, California, includes improv games and skits in a section of their club meeting they call “Live at the Improv.”

The IMPROV Masters club in Bellevue, Washington, infuses its entire meeting with a spontaneous approach. Members arrive at meetings knowing only the identity of the meeting Toastmaster and the theme. The Toastmaster then tells members who will fulfill meeting roles and who will give speeches. For the speeches, members have five minutes to prepare. There is a great deal of extemporaneous speaking—and the quick thinking that goes with it.

Whether or not you belong to an improv club, you can incorporate these exercises into your club meetings. (See the sidebar for specific games you can try.) Paul Tavenner, club president of ImprovMasters, the Culver City group, says improv has helped his career as a music producer and musician.

“Many forms of music I work within require improvisation,” he says. “I joined ImprovMasters to enhance my musical career and improve how I communicate with people both professionally and personally.”

Overcoming Fears
Improv activities, says Lockhart, have increased her comfort level as a speaker and communicator. “I came to the very first Improv-Masters meeting just to check things out,” she says. “Even though the concept terrified me, I could see it was exactly what I needed to loosen up my thinking and respond more organically in my speeches and my functionary roles.

Many improv games are simple and can be played without having to develop special skills, adds Lockhart. “What I see over and over again—and never get tired of—is seeing some-one’s eyes light up when they realize, Hey, I can do this!”

And the exercises are highly entertaining, featuring a healthy dose of humor, notes Diana Lavery, also a member of ImprovMasters. “I always come away feeling like I laughed really hard!” she says.

John Zimmer, ACB, ALB, does improv outside his Toastmasters club. He is a member of the Renegade Saints Improv group in Geneva, Switzerland, which has put on shows for crowds of up to 150 people.

“I have also done corporate training on improv, and people love it,” says Zimmer, a member of the International Geneva Toastmasters club. “I find the whole process a big rush and incredibly stimulating.”

The Basics
What are some of the basics of improvisation? First and foremost, go along with what your scene partner is doing. Your response to their actions and words should imply “Yes, and ….” In this way, you don’t shut down someone else’s suggestion and end up confusing the audience.

This isn’t to say that off the improv stage, you have to agree with everyone you meet. But it does pay to be positive and do your best to see a situation from the other person’s point of view.

Improv Guidelines
David Razowsky is an improv teacher and longtime actor and director for Second City, a renowned improvisational comedy troupe. These are some of his improv “rules.”

It’s not the information, it’s the emotions.
At the core of every scene are the character’s emotions. Start the scene by looking into your partner’s eyes and figuring out what he or she might have just said to you—hypothetically—prior to the scene’s start. Make your first line a reaction to that “statement.” You will immediately be connected to your partner.

Connecting to an audience through eye contact is one of the first things we learn as Toastmasters. It’s the best way to find out how and if your listeners are receiving your message.

The transformation
For an idea to become a scene, a transformation must take place. Someone needs to change, to surrender their point of view, to release their grip on what they thought the scene was going to be at its beginning, to relinquish their “ownership” of the scene. Someone needs to be honest, truthful and express how they feel about their partner or the particular circumstance they are in. Someone needs to have a revelation.

In the course of our professional and personal lives, when we are truly present with others, we grow and change through our interactions.

No rules, just guidelines.
Finally, warns Razowsky, “Rules aren’t rules; they’re guidelines. New improvisers (and speakers) get caught up in concentrating too much on ‘the rules.’” Teachers and directors want you to “own these concepts, to make them second nature,” he adds. “It’s a Zen approach—know what you know, then forget it. Once you ‘own’ a concept, we give you permission to break the rules.”

One of the key principles of improv is to go with the flow—trust your instincts, be open to others and have fun with it. Just remember, there’s a reason they call the thing that actors do a play!

A version of this article appeared in the June 2015 issue of the Toastmaster magazine.

About the Author

Caren S. Neile, Ph.D.

teaches storytelling studies at Florida Atlantic University and has presented at three Toastmasters International conventions. Visit her at