Some speakers can spontaneously create and respond with lightning cleverness. When improvisation is happening at its best, the audience is often laughing, always attentive. Valuable skill to have, right?

At a foundational level, improv engages us because the we like the stakes - we like to see some guy out on a limb, in the breeze, with no pants on. That harsh immediacy of being in the present moment, able to fail, where only your cleverness and humor can save you... if that does not get your heart pumping, you might be my dead grandpa.

So how do you get better at it? Is it even something that can be worked on or are there certain inborn talents that you need to improv well?

Before we talk tips, let's set some context. Readdressing a theme in this blog, practicing communication happens all the time - not just when you are up in front doing a presentation. In our context of public speaking (versus the context of MacGyver), improv is communication. And improv can happen for a one-minute impromptu speech or in moments and chunks throughout a longer, planned presentation.

  1. Listen. Listen more carefully than you think is necessary. People (e.g. the audience) drop clues on what to say and set rhythms for you to follow in their vocal ti... ming.
  2. Speak. Be an active speaker, not just a great listener. Don't dominate people by hogging more than your fair share of the conversation, but be a willing participant in the twisted and occasionally intimidating nether of mutual conversation.
  3. Study. Instead of getting swept into the passive state of waiting until something said affects you, the next time you are watching a show like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, consider what you would say or do in a certain moment. Even better: join an improv class.
And if you ever get frustrated about how you just can't come up with the right words fast enough and just need a punch to get you going, watch this. It just might work.