Public speaking. For some, the mere thought of getting up in front of a group of people and presenting a speech is more terrifying than heights, snakes, or even death. Imagine how terrified those people would be if they were asked to get in front of an audience and speak with nothing prepared in advance – no script, no speech, no nothing.
Sound crazy? Well that is what Improvisational Comedians do every day. Improvisational (or "Improv") Comedy is a form of theater where a group of actors take the stage with nothing prepared in advance and use audience suggestions to create instant comedy. If you have ever seen the popular television show, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" then you have seen Improv Comedy.
The skills that allow an improviser to create instant comedy can immensely help any speaker to be more comfortable and powerful from the platform. Here are three reasons why, if you want to be a more effective speaker, you must learn how to be a great improviser:
1) Improv Comedy, at its core, is about self-expression. An Improviser has only himself on an empty stage. Every idea he puts forth comes from inside of him. The best improvisers realize this and trust their instincts and let their ideas flow out. Similarly, the best speakers realize that the audience is there to see them. Rather than hide behind other people's ideas or style, they are 100% themselves as they speak. Many speakers make the mistake of taking acting classes to be more "dramatic" as they speak. The result is a speaker that looks fake and wooden. Audiences don't want "dramatic;" they want natural. Practicing improv comedy techniques can help you be much more natural.
2) Improv Comedy is an interactive format. Improvisation may be the only art form where the audience is present at the time of creation. As a result, the audience's needs, wants, and mood can be taken into account to direct the content. Great improvisers feed off of a crowd's energy and build content the audience appreciates. The performer pays attention to the audience and makes subtle adjustments as she goes. Speakers would do well to adopt this approach. Most speakers prepare their speech in a vacuum and deliver it exactly as practiced. However, every audience is different. If a speaker pays attention to the audience as she is speaking, she can also make subtle adjustments to increase her effectiveness (adjusting pacing, energy, volume, etc) If you do this, not only will your speech be more powerful, but you will also develop that coveted "rapport and connection" with the audience.
3) Things will go wrong. A speaker who relies solely on what they've memorized will be easily thrown by the distractions that invariably happen. If time gets cut, or a cell phone rings, or a heckler demands attention, the speaker will have no response. To an improviser, distractions are just one more tool to use to make their point. A key improv attitude is to "go with the flow." As a speaker, this attitude will allow you to be unflappable from the stage. You will be deemed a true professional, and audiences will admire your ability to handle interruptions.
These are just three simple ideas that are a powerful way in which improv comedy can make anyone a more powerful speaker. There are many more ways related to all aspects of speaking: content, delivery, storytelling, style, humor, etc, but these three are the perfect starting point.
If you have never done or used improv, then consider taking a class. Not only will you learn useful skills for speaking (and life), but it will be the most fun class you've ever taken!