Impromptu speaking advice from an improvisation teacher

by sujathafan

Recently I had a discussion with a friend from my Aikido club who runs an improvisational theatre group. He described some of the methods used for acting in improvised scenes. Although the content is unrehearsed and unscripted there are a set of well defined techniques which improvisers use to coordinate and advance a scene. He was interested to know about my experiences with table topics stating that there were many similarities. He suggested a couple of improvisational techniques that could be applied to impromptu speaking:

1. Warm up

Performing a great table topic requires you to be creative. Table topics are often open-ended allowing the speaker to take them in many possible directions. If you are tired from a long day at work or frustrated by packed public transport you may not be in the best frame of mind to deliver a creative topic. It is easier to recognise an interesting direction when you’re in a creative mood.

My friend suggested an interesting game to warm up your creativity. He suggested starting a “pulse”, a repetitive sound such as a hand clap about once a second, and on each beat saying a word that had no association with the last. This could be done on your own or in a group. His example words went something like: ”stone, cup, fear, sky, cinema, red, change, love”. Verbs, adjectives, nouns, with no connection at all. This forces your mind to explore new directions rather than remaining in the narrow confines of a single topic.

I’ve been doing this exercise silently in my head while I’m waiting for the topicsmaster to read out my topic. It gets the creative juices flowing and the focus it requires keeps me calm during this nerve wracking period. 

2. Say yes

One of the fundamental techniques in improvisation is saying yes. When an improviser makes a suggestion it should be accepted and built upon. An improvised scene will often consist of actors taking turns to build on previous ideas taking the scene in a strange and surreal direction. If the idea is rejected the chain is broken and the scene can’t advance until a new idea contributed. When a new suggestion is made the rest of the cast should accept it. They should say yes.

This has implications on your interaction with the topicsmaster. Rather than thinking of them as doling out horribly difficult topics think of them as providing ideas for you to engage with and say yes to.

My friend took this concept further suggesting you should say yes to your own ideas. Table topics force you to work with what you’ve got. There is no time to wait for a better idea to hit you. There is no time to research or refine your idea. Even if you think the first thing that pops into your head is rubbish you should accept that it is your only idea and commit to working with it. Once you say yes to an idea you can begin to develop it.

The next time you participate in table topics why not try warming up and running with the first idea that pops into your head.

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One Comment

  1. justdoinmypart
    Posted April 3, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m in Toastmasters in Northern CA, and will be doing a speech on the secrets of successful improvisational speaking. I LOVE the ideas presented here. I’d love to hear more. Any chance you and your theatre friend could conjure up somemore exercises and tips? Thanks for the post.

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