Improving Improv

By Alexander Fong

Whose Line is it Anyway, the legendary improvisational comedy show, has existed in various forms since its genesis on radio before hitting TV in 1988. The show focuses on a core cast of comedians and actors, relying almost solely on their ability to spin humour and wit out of thin, sometimes obscure topics. The idea is that this kind of quick-witted, punchy format showcases the best in a speaker (or comedian or actor) and shows up his most glaring deficiencies, exposing the roots of his convictions.

Speaking competitions see the need for impromptu speeches in their assessments of orators, and have structured them to be an integral part of the event to varying degrees of difficulty. When I first started in this circuit, it was 10 minutes of prep before a 2 minute speech, hardly enough for a 13 year old to go up on stage and not make a fool of himself (I remember very briefly talking about Spongebob??). In a competition I recently adjudicated for, it was pretty much the same story, except the students were challenged to a whopping 3 and half minutes of sustained improvisation. Debates and presentations to large crowds open to questions are equally, if not more, dangerous for the untrained speaker.

But improvisation, or ‘improvisatory oratorical delivery’ (as it is known among high-brows) is a very, very, very unnecessarily long way of saying thinking on your feet. And everyone, whether they plan on being TEDTalkers or not, must to an extent know how to get the cogs turning when pressed for quality answers. Interviews, Q&As after presentations, or even just convincing someone of a particular view, don’t require a torrent of words- but some structure, clarity of thought, and persuasion. The truth of the matter is for these little bits, planting questions and coming up with telemarketing scripts on all the right answers will not cut it.

So what do people like in impromptus – or just in regular, persuasive, convincing answers?

1. Clarity

Hey-ay, hey-ay-ay. Hey-ay, hey-ay-ay. Hey-ay, hey-ay-ay. Hey-ay, hey – Clarity by Zedd ft. Foxes

The whole idea of just plain being understood is that you need to be clear. You could go on for ever about how much you believe you’re right, but it’s just going to come off like a book review you wrote of a book you’ve never read.

Look, this is a great book, okay? It’s an amazing book. I love these kinds of books. They’re amazing. Okay? And it’s fantastic to read. I loved reading it. What a great book!

Unlike a written article, in which I could put all I want to say in one sentence without full stops, and all you would have to do to understand it is keep reading the sentence in its various fragments, when a person speaks, the audience can’t immediately ‘re-read’ what they’ve just said. Shorter sentences which mirror each other in some way, whether anaphorically or just in terms of parallel structures, tend to stick in the mind a lot more than long sentences about the ethical boundaries of psychoanalysis (or something else that sounds really difficult). The long and short of it is, your sentences need to be built in a way that delivers your point one step of logic at a time. Speaking of long and short,

2. Variety

I think people like it when you switch up the games. – Ryan Stiles

Every moment you spend in the light is an opportunity you can take to switch things up, and I mean this in more ways than one. In terms of how you move, the words you use, and the expressions you make, almost everyone enjoys listening to a dynamic soul. Variety is something that is lost with nerves, so don’t forget to take a long, deep breath before speaking.

Of course, the antithesis to this is rocking back and forth incessantly, which anyone would tell you is also just a really nauseous thing to watch. If you want to rest on your left foot, then stay in the moment, especially if you’re making a key point; but once the moment passes, make sure you give that right foot some pressure too.

Improvisation is a mode of speech that relies heavily on delivery, and a good command of your movements helps you with that. But with variety in all its forms comes moderation. So set that body metronome to andante and get rocking.

3. Conviction

When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way. – Walt Disney

YES the holy grail of speech craft, and I’d dare say something which is at the centre of what the Academy of Talk is all about. The most important thing about speaking is having something to say. When pressed for an answer in any instance, in an interview or on stage, as they say, dig deep. Very often, it is insanely apparent if someone is doing something for the sake of doing it, as opposed to doing it because of a genuine belief that his inaction will produce an unacceptable consequence.

If something is important enough, you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure. – Elon Musk

Like I wrote before, improvisation shows up the very roots of a speaker, how in tune he is with the foundations of his arguments. It shows up his opinions, and subjects them to scrutiny. If you’re not thinking hard enough, it’s hard to stay on your feet for too long.

The Academy of Talk, from its days on pieces of disparate paper or floating around as ideas in our heads, has always been about giving a voice to those who feel they are voiceless. That power, to convince, persuade and inspire, comes from the sincere knowledge that there is something that is true, deep inside you, that must be said.

Start with following these tips for improving that improv, and you’re on the way to knowing that voice of yours! 

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