How do you avoid awkward questions, blank flashes, or frozen involvement with your audience as you present or speak? Initially you might be embarrassed, feel insecure, deride yourself internally, or ignore it altogether and carry on splendidly. The skill to possess the freedom to overcome your awkward moments rests in your spontaneous reaction to improvise easily.
Theatre techniques of improvisation are shared training skills of the actor, but not necessarily those of the average person leading a workshop, a project, or a speech. While teaching business professionals and trainers, I found improvisational techniques to be a critical factor in dramatic presence.
Viola Spolin, a creator of theatre games wrote “Improvisation for the Theatre” a mainstay teaching handbook for drama and acting professionals. It was one of my personal favourites guiding drama students on freeing their imagination and creativity.
You too, can kickstart your creative juices and confidence by trying these improvisational warmup exercises.
#1. Free your mind of hesitations and give yourself permission to try silly things.
Begin by walking around your home, office, or environment and take notice of what you see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. Be excited and exaggerate the daily moments you encounter. For example, pause to feel your glass table top, or wood-grain desk, or favourite book; talk to it. Consider what other senses you can draw out from that experience.
Next, close your eyes and listen to the sounds you hear near and far. Imagine what the sound could be. Open your eyes and react to what you see first: colour, shape, size; and continue to explore visually your space inside and out.
Another exercise is to find a tree, look at it from all angles, give it a name, say hello to your tree, and give it a hug. Yes, you can laugh that you are a “tree-hugger”; but no one is judging you. Allow yourself to let go of limitations by exercising your inner emotional reactions.
Remember these are exercises just like you go to your gym and work on the machines to possible personal goals of being stronger or losing weight. With improvisation your goal is to free your mind and body movement through experiential exercises. Begin by noticing what is surrounding you.
#2. Trust your imagination to appear even if you consider yourself unimaginative.
Walk around your space and point to or pick up any object and rename orally as something else. For example, you might pick up your morning coffee cup and call it your cell phone, or cat, or missing watch, or whatever instantly pops into your head.
The key point is that it must be spontaneous, not planned. Trust yourself to just let your imagination come out. If you are struggling to let go, simply pass onto another object and repeat the exercise.
Try this one. Pick up a pencil and list off quickly ten other things, persons, or animals this pencil could be. The more you exercise your imagination, the easier it becomes.
Follow-up with your family, friend, or colleagues with imaginative ideas as your brainstorming for vacation locations, traffic congestion solutions, weather solutions, food choices. Your imagination has no limits.
You can also role-ply with your children, family, or friends as if you are an astronaut landing on a new planet on what you might discover; or simply role-play your version of “Little Red Riding Hood” as a one-minute version; or any other story.
This next one is fun. Role-play two people by yourself. Don’t plan what you will say, nor repeat something that’s overused on television, trust your imagination to say what intuitively comes to you.
For example, you could play the parent of a teenager who has asked to borrow the car. Speak to your imaginary teenager by looking in the space next to you; then stand in that space as the teenager is looking back into your space to answer back to you. Change your mannerisms, and speech to match each character as you continue the conversation for a couple of minutes. You’ve now improvised a scene and played both parts.
#3. Transfer your improvisational techniques to your presentations.
This is an easy exercise to try with a partner. Take an everyday situation, for example, one of you was late for work and begins the conversation. Each of you takes turns speaking but must start by saying, “Yes.” Continue the sentence with spontaneous information even if you think the word “yes” doesn’t fit. Your imagination will create the possibility that it would.
You can try your skill of spontaneous reactions to your audience when something unusual happens. Walk around your group to interact with them. You don’t need any props, as your imagination can create whatever you need, and your audience will have fun with it too. If you don’t have an answer, simply turn it back to your audience and ask them their opinion, and side coach the suggestions with imaginative outcomes.
You will have more confidence and relaxation interacting with your listeners. In turn you are passing it forward as the members will respond in the same way, and feel more comfortable to ask questions, to try out suggestions, and to be open to your content.
If you can attend any drama improvisation class, then do so right away. Have fun experiencing improvisation as your best life skill and presentation tool!