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April 2024
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Understanding Improv

Polish your improvisational techniques in Toastmasters and life.

By Craig Harrison, DTM

You may find the very thought of standing on stage and doing an improvised scene—an improv—extremely intimidating. When we hear the word “improv,” we tend to think of a type of comedy routine, but an improvisation is anything we do that is unplanned.

Despite our best efforts, much of what we do in life is improvised. We are constantly assessing situations, thinking quickly, and formulating responses. We improvise in job interviews, business meetings, and daily small talk. We improvise a meal, a vacation, or a sports play, but we also improvise when a deadline gets moved, something breaks, or a priority shifts.

In Toastmasters, Table Topics® is our improv time. It is specifically designed for us to practice thinking on our feet, formulating responses in the moment, and responding coherently in an unrehearsed manner.

Being able to improvise helps develop skills such as flexibility, self-awareness, creativity, problem-solving, and collaborating. This often leads to innovation and invention, new partnerships, improved processes, and other beneficial outcomes in our work and personal life.

In improv comedy, most of what happens is unplanned and unscripted. Dialogue, actions, and storyline are all made up on the spot by the performers. A successful improv can go in many directions with the end result being an unanticipated, potentially funny, yet somehow coherent story. However, improv isn’t just fun and games. Improv is a process with a simple structure and basic rules of engagement.

Presence, Acceptance, and Trust

Improvisation requires three basic skills: presence, acceptance, and trust. Izzy Gesell, a professional speaker and organizational coach, frequently uses techniques from improv to help his clients. “Presence means that improvisers are able to stay in the moment,” he explains. “Acceptance refers to the ability to deal with what is, rather than what they’d like it to be. … And trust—improvisers trust process, which means they’re able to suspend judgment in the moment.”

For Toastmasters it may seem counterintuitive not to prepare in advance. Yet the key for answering Table Topics is to be fully present and in the moment, without pre-planned statements, stories, or speeches. Being open to whatever comes and receptive to whatever your partner or the audience or the Table Topicsmaster suggests is of paramount importance. In improv, you want to take your cues from the moment.

Being able to improvise helps develop skills such as flexibility, self-awareness, creativity, problem-solving, and collaborating.

One of the central concepts in improv is what’s called “accepting the offer.” Life is full of offers; whether it’s someone asking us a question or wanting to give us something, we have a choice to accept or decline it. We can receive or reject it.

When we respond to a Table Topics question, we’re accepting the offer as a speaker. When we lead a meeting or take on an officer role, we are accepting the offer as a leader. Success in improv and in life often stems from accepting offers, sometimes literally in the moment. When we do, we are trusting the process will guide our reactions.

The Concept of “Yes, AND…”

The building block of improv is based on the “Yes, and …” concept. In life, when someone asks a question or makes a request, we often reflexively respond by saying “no” or responding with the conditional “yes, BUT….” Improv teaches us to trustingly respond with “yes, AND…” to any offer we receive.

The concept of “yes, and …” suggests we accept all offers, building upon the original question or request with our own ideas, concepts, enhancements, or preferences.

Imagine your Topicsmaster calling up two participants in tandem to respond to a topic. Their only guidelines: Whatever the first person says, the second person accepts and builds upon by saying “Yes, and …” before adding their own response. Alternating sentences, together they respond in the moment by listening to the other to fashion their response:

Topicsmaster: Why should strangers join our club?

Respondent #1: It’s a great way to start off the morning.

Respondent #2: Yes, and it’s a supportive group of people to wake up with at 7 a.m.

Respondent #1: Yes, and you leave at 8 a.m. with a head start on the rest of the world that’s just waking up.

Respondent #2: Yes, and our club is full of a blend of experienced members, as well as new members just starting out.

The “Yes, and …” technique is frequently used in brainstorming sessions to generate ideas and explore new possibilities. The key to its success: suspend any judgment of what is said and don’t block your partner’s offers.

Help Your Partner Succeed

In improvisation you also want to make your partner look good. It’s a form of teamwork. If you focus on helping your partner, and your partner focuses on helping you, together you will succeed. In this way, partners develop trust quickly as they replace judgment with curiosity as they improvise.

One of the misnomers of improv is that someone “wins” at the end. In fact, a successful improv session involves collaborating, teaming, co-creating, and building something in partnership. The moment an improv player focuses on winning, or looking good, or using humor at another’s expense, it quickly unravels. The magic of improv happens when each person focuses on their partner’s needs.

People often get self-conscious and are concerned about looking foolish. Yet when you focus on helping your partner look good, and when they do likewise, everyone shines. Improv is based on accepting initial offers, building upon them, supporting new offers that sprout up, and going with the flow. All doors remain open when we suspend judgment and explore all that could be. This skill is invaluable in businesses where team successes trump individual triumphs. When the team wins, we all win.

The Power of the Unexpected

You’ll find a wide variety of improv games, books, classes, and troupes to sharpen your improvisational skills. Some clubs introduce improv into Table Topics or use improv activities in place of a speech. District conferences and Toastmasters Leadership Institutes periodically use improv programs as a fun activity to help people discover things about themselves and others. Many games exercise verbal and non-verbal skills, emphasize the power of observation and listening, and reward good team play.

“Improv is such a valuable tool for everybody regardless of what your career aspirations are,” says Kenn Adams, author of How to Improvise a Full-Length Play: The Art of Spontaneous Theater. “At the end of the day it boils down into ‘Do you work well with other people and can you collaborate with them?’” Improv gives you and your team practice with both. And with success, comes trust, confidence, and a desire to take on new challenges.

So go ahead: take a risk, experiment, get beyond your comfort zone, and focus on helping your partners succeed, and you will all become Improv-Masters!


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