March 26

5 Must-Know Rules of Improv for Presenters


It was how many nightmares begin, only this time it was real.  I was standing in front of 200 people ready to speak at sales conference.  My first slide had a link to a virtual poll that would get everyone’s input on the topic.  We had tested the link and the connection earlier in the morning, however when I clicked on it – you guessed it – nothing happened.  Except my stomach flipped.

Earlier in my career I would have panicked.  I’d clicked around in vain, stammered excuses, perhaps called out from some help.  All while losing valuable audience attention and credibility.

Fortunately the Improv training I had taken for several years prepared me for just such occasions.  Instead of giving in to the panic, I considered how I could use what was given to me.

I pointed out the audience 3 different parts of the room and associated each with one of the poll answers.  Then I asked each person to go to the area where their answer was.

There was much laughter and discussion as the crowd went to their preferred spot.  Once there I asked each group to pick a representative to discuss their choice.  We had a 5 minute lively debate over each position, the audience was physically and intellectually engaged, and remained so for the rest of the program.  Now, I incorporate that exercise in other sessions.

Embracing the Unexpected with IMPROV

Improv skills are perfect for helping presenters recover from potentially disastrous moments as well as help navigate tricky sales waters.  By embracing the unexpected without panic, improv allows you to keep the conversation moving forward and discover new solutions you might otherwise have missed.

Many think improv is simply spitting out the first thing that comes to mind.  Actually, improv performers work hard to achieve the kind of lightning-quick speed and laser-like focus necessary to react to changing circumstances.  And, they have a set of rules that make the whole process look effortless.

With an increased reliance on technology, the opportunity for disaster to strike during a presentation is greater than ever.   Learning a few critical Rules of Improv will help you to stay on your toes, ready to react spontaneously and skillfully to the unexpected.

Five Must-Know Rules of Improv for Presenters :

  1. Know Your Material.
    Sounds obvious, yes? But too much reliance on technology is never a safe bet.  In order to improvise, you must know your product or presentation inside and out, forwards and backwards.  You must know WHAT you’re saying, and you must know WHY you’re saying it.  Learn the  No-Fail Actor’s way to Memorize and Practice your presentation by clicking here.  So practice your presentation properly.  Read it out loud to the dog.  Rap it to your roommate.  Know it so well that you could ad-lib or pick it up easily at any point.
  2. Fire the Editor
    As adults we learn to edit ourselves, but often our editor turns into our harshest critic.   When you’re presenting, give that little editor in your head the afternoon off.  You can re-run the tapes after the game when you can actually DO something about it, but in the mean time…
  3. Stay in the Moment
    Staying focused on the present moment not only eliminates much stage fright, it also creates a heightened awareness; only by being in the moment can you be aware of subtle shifts in your prospect, both verbal and nonverbal.   So stop.  Pause.  Take in the moment.  You’ll be amazed at what you may have otherwise missed in your rush to get through your presentation.
  4. Use your Mistakes
    Most of us don’t use a teleprompter to present, but who hasn’t experienced a faulty PowerPoint?  A botched demo or forgotten brochures?  Don’t panic! If an actor makes a mistake, but uses it in the scene, the audience usually goes along with it, without being any wiser.   In sales, if the mistake doesn’t affect your basic message, there’s no need to draw added attention to it.  If it does, apologize once and move on.  No need to belabor it. If it’s something you can actually incorporate into your presentation, all the better. In other words, use it, lose it or laugh at it.
  5. Say, “Yes and…”
    In Improv, no matter what your partner gives you, you must always reply with “Yes, and…” in order to keep the action moving forward.  We can use this rule to keep the sale moving forward as well.  For example, suppose your client tells you that they never buy anything but Product X.  Instead of saying “Yes, but you’ve never tried our product,” which immediately puts them in the position of defending your competitor, you reply:  “Yes, and that’s why you don’t yet have anything to compare it to.”  You have acknowledged their point as well as offered an alternative perspective without getting their defenses up.

Adding the Rules of Improv  to your presentation tool kit will allow you to respond confidently and skillfully to almost anything thrown at you—except perhaps the odd tomato!

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Improv, improv for presenters, presentation skills, sales presentations, sales tips

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  1. You mentioned that knowing the material you are speaking on is a way to not be nervous while public speaking. I can see how that would help, because you wouldn’t have to think as much about what you are going to say, it would just come naturally. Do you think that watching other presenters would also help one become more comfortable with it?

    1. Hi Shaylee – Sorry for the delay! This got trapped in my spam folder 🙁 I think watching other presenters is helpful in many ways for aspiring speakers, however many people think “well they don’t look nervous so therefore they’re not like me.” Understanding that they may very well be just as anxious but have found their way through it may be helpful. Most helpful is just practicing and focusing more on connecting with your audience and less time thinking about how you are feeling!

  2. I liked your tip of staying focused in the moment to get through a presentation. My wife is getting ready to present in front of her colleagues and she is wondering how to get through her nerves of presenting in front of others. I’ll be sure to tell her that she should stay focused on the moment when she is presenting.

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