Improv

Be a Powerful Presenter … Even “On the Fly”

We all know that when it comes to public speaking, “practice makes perfect.” So if you want to bring the house down, you have to prepare your script or outline in advance and practice your delivery by rehearsing out loud. Only then can you rest assured that you’ll give a great speech.

But what about those times when you have to speak on the fly, as in an interview situation where you are speaking “off the cuff,” on a panel when any question can come your way, when the camera is running and you’re put on the spot, or when you are in front of a hostile crowd? How do you organize your thoughts so you sound like an expert and come across as natural, flowing, credible and confident? As one of my clients told me this week, “I want to be able to riff off the script and speak eloquently off the cuff.”

Here’s a secret: The best impromptu speakers follow many of the same principles you use when planning a more formal presentation. Since you’re being call upon to speak, it’s assumed that you’re a subject matter expert and passionate about what you have to say. So in those few seconds you have to plan your reply, use the simple rules of content organization:Keep your audience in mind, remember your purpose, and quickly organize your response into three discreet sections: beginning, middle, and end.

As you speak, keep your message concise (and yourself on point) by using short sentences. When appropriate, include an interesting story and relevant example to highlight your key point. Stick to your structure throughout – “first of all…” “second…” And finally…”

To appear confident, keep your posture upright, use gestures and facial expressions, and make eye contact with your listeners. Concentrate on your voice by controlling your rate of speech, using inflection to highlight key points, and pausing to give yourself and the audience or interviewer a chance to reflect on what you are saying. These few vocal skills will prevent you from getting tongue tied and help you come across as cool and collected.

And even though you have only minutes or sometimes seconds to prepare, make sure you hit your talking points. For example, if you’re on a panel and get a question you didn’t expect, bring the focus back around to the key points you want known about your topic. Most subject matter experts have key sound bites memorized about their topic. This is the time to draw upon those. 

You never know when you might be called on to speak on the fly, but if you use the same public speaking concepts and techniques you use for general presentations, you can make any presentation look like a well-planned event … even if you have just a few seconds to do so.

Asked to Give an Impromptu Speech? It’s as Easy as One, Two, Three

Have you ever been to a business meeting or other event and unexpectedly been asked to stand and “say a few words”? This happened to three of my clients recently. One woman told me how her confidence soared and she excelled at giving a presentation to her company’s executive staff, yet she fumbled when asked on-the-spot to speak to company interns. Another man told me how he loved speaking at his all hands meeting, which had an audience of 500, yet he choked when asked to speak impromptu to a small field sales group. And my own son, usually a composed speaker, “blanked out and babbled” when asked to speak at a recent awards meeting to honor his own promotion. These are all competent and experienced speakers, yet they all stammered when asked to present unexpectedly. Why?

When you know you are going to be giving a speech, whether to your executive staff, at an all hands meeting, or in any other public speaking situation, you have time to plan and prepare. It doesn’t sneak up on you. You can develop a grand theme and strong message, build stimulating slides with eye catching visuals, and rehearse your delivery and staging to perfection. Time is on your side and the equation is simple: the quality of your presentation will be matched by the quantity of your preparation.

But what about the impromptu speech? What can you do to you maintain your confidence, add value to the conversation, and sound convincing and eloquent when you have no time to prepare?

First, realize that you have given hundreds of impromptu speeches before—such as when you added input during a business meeting, informed your new employee how to follow a procedure, asked a question of your boss or responded to a question by a colleague, spoke up at your child’s school PTA meeting, and even talked to the manager at a retail store to offer praise or advice regarding an employee. Think of how you behaved in these situations. Most likely you were calm, confident, and concise. And that is the formula for impromptu speaking success—stay relaxed, organize your thoughts, and limit yourself to a few, salient remarks.

When it comes to putting this formula into practice before an impromptu speaking opportunity, I recommend using a simple beginning, middle, end (or one, two, three) structure and specific language to help you remember the flow.

  • Step One: “First of all…” Begin your remarks with, “First of all, I’d like to say…” One client I work with who uses this approach always begins with a thank you, as in, “First of all, I want to thank you all for being here today…” He says that gives him time to gather his thoughts. But if you’ve been asked a question or asked for you input, you’ll need instead to state the point you are responding to. You could say something like, “First of all, I’d like to acknowledge the challenge we are facing…”
  • Step Two: “Next…” After you state your first thought, then state one relevant “touch point” or piece of support evidence to back it up, such as a crucial statistic, example, quote, or humorous story. Going back to the previous example of acknowledging the challenge, you could follow up the “first of all” line with, “Next, I want to also acknowledge the incredible opportunity available to us right now…”
  • Step Three: “And finally…” Here you briefly summarize what you have said and add your final thought. This is the highlight of the impromptu—the moment when you make everyone feel welcome, inspired, respected or when you move the conversation along in a meaningful way, as in, “And finally, I look forward to working together to achieve the goals we all know are possible…”

One of my clients, who is very good at impromptu speaking, says that even though he is not on the formal agenda to speak everywhere he goes, he is usually asked to say a few words. Knowing this, he never waits to the last minute to gather his thoughts. He uses this three step process to prepare ahead of time so he is never caught off guard.

So if you are going to an event and there is even the remote possibility that you may be called on to speak, take the time to prepare in advance. Use this three-step process and you will appear calm, confident and concise—the epitome of a polished speaker.

If I Were Clint Eastwood’s Speech Coach…

Along with many people, I’m still scratching my head about Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention last night. I can only think that this is another example of what can happen when good intentions go awry. From my understanding, Clint’s appearance was unplanned, and within a few sentences into his speech, I could sense that his words were unplanned too. His unprepared and unrehearsed presentation quickly turned to rambling.

As a speech coach, I thought I’d give Clint some advice so that next time he is asked to give a speech on behalf of a candidate for president of the United States he knows what to do. But after last night, I doubt there will ever be a next time.

  • Honor the person you are there to honor: His near drunken style, the chair, the implied F-bomb and his off-the-cuff comments about “all political parties are the same” and “none of it matters” must have sent chills down the spines of Romney and his team. I would coach Clint to more carefully analyze the needs of his sponsors and the person he has been asked to honor. Ask them, “What can I do for you? How can I help you construct a message that is powerful and uplifting?” While Clint’s approach was funny, it was funny for the wrong reasons. He was there to support the team, not go rogue and run roughshod—like so many of his movie personas.
  • Honor the audience you are speaking to: Yes, he got a few good laughs. The implied F-word joke got him two, and my guess is he used the joke the second time after it got such a good laugh the first time. Jokes are fine, but using the F-bomb—even implied—is completely inappropriate in any setting, but even more so in a setting such as this where millions of viewers from around the world are watching a key event of our governing process. This was flat out disrespectful and, given the sincerely pious nature of the GOP running mates, I doubt they saw this as funny. This is a classic case of not knowing your audience.
  • Honor your opponent: Having a theater background, I’m a big fan of using props. So I was intrigued when I saw the chair on stage; however, I never suspected it would be used as a weapon. I should have remembered Dirty Harry and how natural it is for Clint to hurl gunshots at imaginary people! First, I would coach Clint to address the president—no matter who is in office—as Mr. President instead of his more casual use of Mr. Obama. Also, implying that any president would say such things as “Shut up” and “Go *#%& yourself” was both discourteous and highly offensive. While it got laughs, I suspect it was more “nervous funny” than true humor. A convention for a United States presidential candidate is no place for this kind of crude, inappropriate humor.
Old Man Yells at Chair

Today, I have heard various people defend Clint Eastwood. One person told me, “I thought for being 83 years old and talking off-the-cuff that he did pretty good.” To that I say what I tell anyone I coach: For high stakes speeches such as this, “off–the-cuff” will never get you where you want to be. You have to know your sponsors, know your audience, and know your opponents…and then you must prepare as if YOU were running for office. Your goal should be to have your listeners take action on your message, which in this case was to support and vote for Mitt Romney. After Clint’s speech, the only action people took was creating an explosion in cyberspace making fun of Clint and his (failed) delivery. No one today is talking about Mitt Romney.

But despite all this, Clint’s reputation will live on. He did, after all, manage to do what he is famous for: He made my day!

San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers Offers Valuable Public Speaking Lessons

Yesterday was the centennial running of the Bay to Breakers foot race. For those of you who have never heard of it, allow me to paint the picture: Over fifty thousand people, a majority of which were dressed in outrageous costumes, took to the streets of San Francisco and marched from the San Francisco Bay all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It was a seven and a half mile trek that weaved through a number of the city’s greatest sights. An event like this truly brings out the vibrant colors of the city and provides fantastic opportunities for people watching. Under cloudy skies, the wild parade of costumed marathoners made their merry way through the enchanting City by the Bay. 

And yes, even in this surreal environment I found lessons that pertain to public speaking.

Preparation is King – Preparing for your Bay to Breakers experience is vital. If you don’t coordinate with your companions, you will wind up lost and alone in an endless tidal wave of Smurfs, trolls, dinosaurs, and cavemen. Instead of being a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon, it could be a truly disastrous and lonely experience. Likewise, if you are going to succeed onstage, you must prepare. You don’t want to give yourself the opportunity to make mistakes, so knowing your touch points and memorizing your opening and close and practicing out loud in front of a mirror will be sure to help you keep your cool when you are in front of an audience. 

Poise under Pressure – Without a healthy level of poise and self-confidence, you may not fully enjoy being out in public wearing a ridiculously funny costume. You may feel the desire to hide among the crowd or even bow out of the fun early. And while you likely won’t be presenting in an absurd costume, speaking in front of an audience can be an equally overwhelming experience. Without  maintaining some level of poise, you may make the mistake of fudging a line, forgetting a touch point, or freezing up on stage. 

Have Fun – The ultimate tool you can learn from Bay to Breakers, however, is to have fun. Can you imagine if you attempted to attend an event like Bay to Breakers and were self-conscious about how you were dressed or feared what others would say about you? You would stand out like a sore thumb! You can apply that same principle to being in front of an audience. If you are comfortable with yourself, your audience will be right with you throughout your entire performance. So relax and have fun! The more you enjoy yourself while you’re giving a presentation, the easier it is to connect with your audience and sound more credible. 

So what was my outrageous costume this weekend? For now, I’m keeping that a secret. However, the first person to guess correctly by posting your answers here will receive a signed copy of my book, Roadmap to Success. So keep those guesses coming!

The PowerPoint Revolution: PowerPoint Karaoke and Pecha Kucha

The PowerPoint Revolution continues! Every few months another contender appears in the marketplace, attempting to poke a hole in the thick skin of the 800 lb slideware-gorilla that dominates meeting rooms across the globe. I don’t believe that there is anything inherently wrong with PowerPoint, but it has undoubtedly become the software program everyone loves to hate.

 

For instance, American-born statistician and Yale Professor Edward Tufte wrote a popular essay denouncing PowerPoint’s ability to provide quality analytics. The worth of PowerPoint as a diagnostics tool may be debatable, but the fact that slideware presentations almost always lack entertainment value is undeniable. If companies insist on creating PowerPoint presentations that lack creativity and bore audiences, then they’d better be ready for backlash.

 

Besides prominent voices like Professor Tufte, groups of presenters have taken it upon themselves to re-format their presentations into light, image driven and entertaining events called PowerPoint Karaoke and Pecha Kucha (pronounced “pe-chak-cha”). Could this be a big leap towards the demise of dense, mind-numbing, inaccessible slides?

 

Let’s take a look…..

 

 

PowerPoint Karaoke is a spin-off from traditional Karaoke; However, instead of singing songs, participants give a presentation about an unfamiliar topic with slides they’ve never seen—a random, impromptu PowerPoint presentation. Think charades with words. No rehearsal, no preparation. For those of you who like to wing it and let the creative juices flow, this activity is for you.

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PowerPoint Karaoke is not only fun, but can be a great training tool for those looking to improve with improv and sharpen their rhetorical presentation skills. It is also a great team building activity or party game…with or without a glass of wine.

 

Take a look at the PowerPoint Karaoke Tournament website to see some hilarious videos of past presentations. And if you’d like to host your own PPTK event, you can download some very bad slides here.

  

Pecha Kucha was created in 2003 by two Japan based architects who wanted to give architects, designers and other creative types a way to informally present their ideas in a more engaging, dynamic manner. Presenters speak for twenty seconds (the slides change automatically) using just 20 slides, a format called “20x20.” The total presentation time is 6 minutes and 40 seconds, so these presentations are concise to say the least.

 

The official Pecha Kucha website will tell you what it’s all about, provide videos of past presentations, locate upcoming events, and more. Also, here you will find a Pecha Kucha guide that will help you get started.

 

 

So what do you think? Is the dinosaur nearing extinction? And will the revolution be televised?

Improve with Improv

You show up to your speaking engagement only to realize that your PowerPoint presentation isn’t opening, the A/V system is down, and there’s a car alarm blaring right outside the window.  There’s a full room of people eagerly waiting for you to begin and there is no turning back now. So what are you going to do?

Situations like this one happen all too often, and they require quick thinking and creative problem solving with little or no guidance.  Improvisation is a must-have tool in the public speaker’s repertoire. Without it, speakers often find themselves in what I call “The Big Freeze”—that paralyzing moment of fear, physical immobility and mental shut down that leaves them unable to act.  But if speakers utilize the teachings and techniques of improv, they can learn to overcome this fear and actually enjoy flying by the seat of their pants.

In his book Blink, author Malcom Gladwell explains that improv requires split-second, spontaneous decisions and hours of highly repetitive, structured practice. Think of a play in basketball. The players on the court all have defined positions, and they’ve spent hours practicing in order to execute properly. But often the play breaks down. Maybe the defense switched a match-up or there is an injury. Do they just stand there, paralyzed? Of course not! Now the play becomes an adaptation. Because they’ve practiced so much, they’ve experienced the variables and can alter the play. The point-guard thinks on his toes, makes an extra pass, and the team ends up with a jump shot instead of a layup. As Gladwell puts it, “How good people’s decisions are [made] under the fast-moving, high-stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of training and rules and rehearsal.”

The paramount improv rule, according to Gladwell, is the notion of agreement. As you can see in the video above, the comedians accept everything that comes their way.  The key to their hilarity is the speed at which they “go with the flow.” There is a full commitment to agreement. All of a sudden, the issues that would normally hold a situation hostage due to incompatibility are accepted and incorporated. The answer is always “yes.” Gladwell notes, “Bad improvisers block action…Good improvisers develop action.”

So envision yourself as a basketball team or comedy troupe of one.  When you find yourself presented with a public speaking distraction, limitation or challenge, think of it as just one more tool to make your presentation stand out.

With these lessons in mind, what would you do if the PowerPoint is down for the count, the microphone is on the fritz, and the Jeep outside your window just won’t quit?