Note: The following is an excerpt from my untitled book on fearless public speaking, targeted for publication later this year.
Are you comfortable with uncertainty?
Are you known as a person who’s good at ‘thinking on their feet’?
Do you look forward to finding yourself in the middle of an unfamiliar situation in order to feel a rush of adrenaline?
If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, then I have just the thing for you…improvisational speaking.
For a typical presentation you’ll be given plenty of advance notice to prepare. You’ll have full knowledge of the topic, format, venue, and audience. As long as you give yourself ample time to prepare, you’ll be ready when the big day comes.
Now it’s a different story when it comes to improv. You won’t have advance knowledge of the topic. And there’ll be no time to prepare. A split second is all you’ll be given before your speaking window closes. If you’re the type of person who prefers to choose your words wisely, then read on.
The key to improv is to focus your awareness on the edge of time we call ‘now’. Analysis is out. You’ll need to allow all stimuli to enter your consciousness without selective filtering. To be successful at improvisational speaking, you’ll need to trust yourself to make decisions in real time.
The archetypical extrovert is the ideal improvisational speaker. You’ll recognize people in this category by their proclivity to speak before they think. They don’t mind if the ideas that flow from their mouths aren’t fully formed. They see a conversation as an ongoing exchange of ideas. They respond creatively and don’t see the need to defend their ideas as absolutes.
Extroverts welcomes change. In fact, they revel in it. You’ve heard the expressions, “go with the flow” and “live in the moment”. Extroverts take those ideas to heart.
Improvisational speaking is at the center of our daily business life. Most managers proclaim to practice an open door policy. The manager promises to drop whatever he or she is doing to take up the employee’s concern. These situations are where the manager’s improvisational skills are tested.
An adroit manager will have the presence of mind to switch into improvisational mode as soon as an employee shows up at his door. There is no time to prepare as there is no read-ahead providing the topic of conversation. He’ll need to wing it. The more skilled he is at clearing his head of the residue of thought, the more effectively he can focus on his employee.
We improve our skills by observing experts in the field. When it comes to improv our search ends quickly as we only need to watch our kids. Children have natural improv skills. They are adept at living in the moment because their abstract and critical thinking skills have not developed yet.
Listen to children speak and you’ll be reminded of a bee around flowers. The conversation weaves in and out. Logic is nowhere to be found. Imagination is key. Adults looking for a structured discussion will quickly become dizzy trying to keep up with children’s frenzied playfulness.
Where have our natural improvisational skills gone? The good news is that they haven’t disappeared. We still have them. It’s the same situation for any skill we have mastered but haven’t used in awhile.
For example, most people were excellent bike riders as children. But the two-wheeled apparatus lies unused as we learn to drive a vehicle with four wheels. However, even after many years away from bike riding it takes us only a few hours to get back to the skill level we enjoyed as kids.
It’s the same with improvisational speaking. We mastered the skill as children without even knowing it. Now, as adults, it lies dormant within us. So then why does it seem so difficult to bring ourselves back to our former level of expertise?
The answer lies with our big brains. Basically we think too much to allow ourselves to flow with the speed of our own thoughts. We get in the way of our very fast stream of consciousness. Our thinking process is approximately 800 words per minute (wpm). Yet our speaking rate is only 150 wpm. What do we do with the 650 words left unspoken? Or more to the point of this article, how do we choose which 100 words to let loose?
To be an effective improvisational speaker, we must find ways to clear away the blockages that slow down our flow of words. The world’s fastest speaker lets out an incredible 655 wpm. A top auctioneer will bid-call at 400 wpm. Should we attempt to speak at that rate? We could, but our audience would be laughing so loudly we wouldn’t be able to hear ourselves think.
We need to increase our rate of speaking by only 25 wpm to notice a significant increase in our improv skills. Why? When we speak faster than our typical comfortable rate, we force ourselves to let ideas out that aren’t fully formed. We think less about saying the right things. We don’t have as much time to filter our thoughts as we are used to.
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