Fake It ‘Til You Make It: Use These 6 Improv Tips to Nail Your Next Presentation at Work

Hack your presentation skills with these golden rules of improvisation—and 3 exercises to put them into practice.

You compile research, spend an entire afternoon building a PowerPoint and jot down the main points you want to hit on an index card. You couldn’t be more prepared for your presentation.

Then the meeting rolls around and the computer freezes, you dump coffee all over your notecard and the asshole from sales insists on peppering you with questions that you haven’t prepared for.

This isn’t going as planned.

Even if everything goes smoothly (and the peanut gallery in the back row stays silent), presentations can be unnerving. Luckily, there are a group of people who have a bag full of tricks for bouncing back, rolling with the punches, and thinking on the fly.

Improvisation is a theatrical technique in which actors make up the plot, characters and dialogue of a game, scene or story in the moment. Once a class that your wannabe-actor friend took on weekends, it has now become a popular method that businessmen, lawyers and many other professionals use to train themselves to come out of their shell and be able to channel creativity on the spot. Which makes sense since it’s the ultimate test of your ability to react to situations that are thrown at you, and formulate an intelligent, witty or relevant response.

Plus, a recent study found that how quickly you can process and react in social situations is one of the key components of charisma. So taking a few notes from the books of improv theater artists, and applying them not only to your work presentations and interactions with co-workers, but social situations in general, may have you adding “life of the party” to your resume as well.

Here are a few golden rules of improv that translate seamlessly to your interactions in meetings, presentations and the Q and A session that inevitably ensues when you ask, “any questions?”

Say “Yes, And…”

“One of the things we learn in improv is to say ‘Yes, and’ instead of ‘Yes, but,'” said Dan Nainan, comedian, who took his first class to overcome his fear of public speaking as a senior engineer at Intel Corporation. “Saying ‘but’ is a way of arguing and tends to stop the flow of conversation. ‘And’ is much more positive and keeps the conversation going.” Fun fact: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is a fan of the technique.

“‘Yes, and…'” is critical, especially in the environment that we live in today,” added Kenny Madison, a digital marketer who has been doing improvisation for eight years (most recently at The Institution Theater); using it to help better himself as an employee and manager. “[It] means acknowledge the information that is given in front of you and agree that it is real and tangible. If you are working on a project for a client and a fellow co-worker suggests something, don’t immediately shoot it down. Instead, discuss the validity of it and why it might work. If it is a catastrophic idea that may torpedo everything (like an improv scene where someone shoots everyone on stage), talk about why you should steer it in a different direction.”

But Don’t Always Agree

“Acknowledgement and validation does not mean agreement. Just like first year improv students misunderstand, ‘Yes, and…,’ so, too, do nice people in a business setting,” said Madison. “You can disagree, but you can do so with tact that will ultimately leave the entire team stronger. Therefore, you acknowledge (Yes), validate (I think you’re on the right track), then disagree (but I think it might not work because of [specific reason]).”

This can be especially productive when you are putting together a new marketing pitch or business plan, or holding a brainstorming session for a project. “While you are ideally using data to justify your decisions, you still need to give validation to all possible ideas,” said Madison. “It’s a purely emotional response to validate, too; however, the more you validate, the more other team members feel free to contribute, which offers higher chances of improving business flow.”

Add Information

“I’m a keynote speaker who speaks on creativity and innovation while doing improv with the audience. My clients are all corporations and associations,” said Julie Austin, award-winning author, inventor, innovation speaker and CEO of the consulting firm Creative Innovation Group. “One of the best rules in improv is to always be adding information. Adding information keeps things moving and makes your stories more interesting. Practice always moving the conversation forward by adding information.”

Don’t Deny

Another rule of improv that will help guide you seamlessly through a presentation is to never say no. “You never know what you might be hit with, so you have to be prepared for anything,” said Austin. “By not denying you will always take whatever you’re given and be able to turn it into something useful. You will also be better able to deflect a heckler if you hit it head on rather than avoiding it.”

Put the Group Above Yourself

“Because there is so much money on the line in business, it can get cutthroat. While it is critical that you be seen within a business perspective through networkingimprov teaches you to put the group above yourself,” said Madison. “If you stick out in terms of performance, then you are commandeering the focus and ‘shivving’ (the improv term for stealing the focus) the rest of the team and the business.”

Just as an improv show relies on an entire cast, and not one person, a business should also not be wholly dependent on your performance. “Instead, if you have knowledge and skills that you think elevates the team, actively share it. Collaborate. If you see people having a hard time with things, offer to help,” said Madison.

Always Do Something 

When it comes to how we approach business, many of us do not want to rock the boat. For fear of being reprimanded, fired or ostracized by colleagues, many refrain from sharing ideas or concerns that may ruffle some feathers or go against the status quo.

“The problem is that discourages innovation,” said Madison. “Mick Napier from Second City/The Annoyance in Chicago argues that it’s better to do something than nothing. In improv, if you have four players, all of whom are waiting for the other person to walk on stage and start a scene, then there is nothing happening on stage. When that happens, the audience is uninterested, so you lose them.”

The lesson here is that taking action is always the better choice. “Always do something. You have to make mistakes, especially in formative months. Actively contribute and mess up,” said Madison. “People get scared to do something because we live in a fatalistic world where, if we mess up, then we get yelled at or fired. However, if you mess up, you are not dead. You are not dying. You have only made a misstep, but you are still walking.”

Actively practicing this golden rule of improv will come in handy when carefully planned presentations and Q and A sessions stray into uncharted territory. “If you’re in a Q and A and accidentally misplace a card in your carefully curated response, just do something,” said Madison. “What many ‘normal’ folks fail to realize is that the audience you’re talking to has never seen this particular Q and A before. That means there is no basis of comparison, which means you cannot fail. So just talk about something, anything, until you get back onto your curated response.”

Team Exercises

Time to take your next board meeting up a notch. Here are a few improv exercises courtesy of Madison that translate nicely from the stage to the boardroom, helping to foster group bonds, improve communication, and hone your ability to react and respond on the spot.

Exercise: The Unbreakable Link

A circle of people close their eyes, then grab hands with two other people that are not on their left and right. When the group opens their eyes, the group is newly tangled. It is their responsibility to untangle the link and get into a brand new circle. DO NOT BREAK HANDS. See what the group can do to untangle without letting go of each other’s hands. If exercise last longer than 30 minutes, you are allowed to modify rules.

Exercise: “Not Only That”

Pair people off in teams of two. Appoint an A and a B person. Person A gives a neutral statement (i.e. “Paint is brown.”). Person B responds by starting with “Not only that,” then adding to the previous statement (i.e.. “Not only is the paint brown, but the paint is very smelly and greasy.”). Person A responds with their own “Not only that” statement (i.e. “Not only is the paint smelly and greasy, but it’s making me nauseous”). Repeat exercise until it gets absurd.

Exercise: 5 Things

This exercise is an effective way to practice always doing something in a given situation. It might seem unrelated to your career, but you may be surprised how much more easily you’re able to think on your toes during your next presentation.

Person A tells Person B, “(PERSON), give me 5 things you would do about (X).” (i.e. “Tyler, give me 5 things that rhyme with the word ‘garage door'”). Person B then lists 5 things as fast as they can. THEY DO NOT HAVE TO RELATE DIRECTLY TO THE TOPIC (i.e. “Elbow, pants, fortnight, arrogance, try hard”).

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