How to improve your presentation skills through Improvisation.

Presentation skills lie at the heart of business.  Whether one on one, or to a room full of delegates, it can be the difference between success and failure.  In our experience in improvisation training, pitching and presenting are primarily about two things: confidence, and telling a compelling story.  In this article, we will look at the traditional techniques of presentation and then give an insight into how we run an improvisation for presentation skills session by looking at a recent session we did for the Sussex Innovation Centre.

Presentation Skills
Let’s take confidence first: improvisers (and actors) are used to pretending. Even when they’re nervous about stepping on stage, they use tools to at least make them look like they’re not nervous. They use eye contact, stillness, energy, active listening, observation and commitment. The same skills can be learnt and applied to pitching.

If you’re presenting to a panel or indeed a large room, you need to read the audience – are they friendly? Do they want you to do well? What signals are they giving off? Almost always an audience DOES want you to do well. If you’re pitching – they want to be excited by your product. If you’re presenting, they want to be interested. They don’t want to feel uncomfortable any more than you do. Think of a time you’ve seen a stand-up comedian ‘die’ on stage – it’s not fun for anyone.

You can do a lot to make an audience want to listen:

  • Make eye contact (not all the time – that would be weird), but touch base with them, show you’re human, try to include everyone. When we’re thinking or remembering, we often look down or up – neither of those involve the people we are trying to connect and find rapport with.
  • Be still – feel free to move on a thought, that’s what actors do, but otherwise try planting your feet and not moving them (there is power in stillness – watching someone scuttle around the stage is stressful for the watcher, and makes it hard to concentrate on their message).
  • Check-in with how you WALK in to the room and how you hold your body – you’re onstage the moment they see you. Think about the way you stand. For this exercise, we walked around the room leading from a part of the body, eg the hips, the knees, the forehead. We tried lots and decided that (in most cases) leading from the chest made us feel the most confident. Not only this, but the pay-off is that it opens your chest out and therefore gives you more breath, and consequently more oxygen to the brain.
  • Silence can also be your friend – not the uncomfortable silence of desperately trying to remember a point, but the silence of absorbing information. An audience likes time to ingest a thought. Try pausing for a moment after an important point; it give you time to breathe and take stock, and the audience time to hear it.
  • Actively listen – try to repeat back what someone’s said to you before replying, even if it’s just in your head. By repeating part of what they’ve said, you show you’ve heard them and it also clarifies it for you. Don’t rush! Breathe.
  • Tell your story – what makes YOUR presentation different? We told stories to each other in the workshop using the idea of expanding on a point or moving the ‘plot’ on. By doing this you can feel the rhythm of the story and you discover what’s interesting to an audience. This is really useful for structuring your presentation. As there was a director of the improvised story, we were also able to practise ‘adaptive thinking’ – moments when we were not the only one in control but had to adapt to a new idea in the moment.

Case Study of Presentation Skills Training.

Simon Chuter, of Sussex Innovation Centre invited The Maydays in to give a Presentation Skills workshop at the University of Sussex Falmer Campus.  He’s currently involved with StartUp Sussex, an annual competition for Sussex students and graduates run by the Innovation Centre. Finalists and Undergraduates are awarded valuable start-up funding, with a final top prize of £10,000.

The Maydays Jen Rowe worked with the ten finalist teams who have participated in other workshops to develop their entrepreneurial skills throughout the term. The students and recent alumni came from a range of disciplines, including English Literature, Anthropology, Finance, Project Management and Robotics.

The group (made up of ten individuals and teams) had all got through the first round of 2-minute pitches to a two-person panel. The next stage would be a much bigger deal – a 10-minute pitch to a panel of six, with a further 10 minutes of questions. For many of the students, this would be their first experience of presenting under pressure. Here’s Jen’s notes on the session:

“So, to business (fun business, but business nevertheless). We started by getting everyone comfortable with some simple group games and warm ups before moving on to more specific exercises” Here is where we believe improvisation can provide a unique approach. Failure is an area of life we are taught to be uncomfortable around.  Failure can be presented in many forms while presenting to people.  A simple hesitation, losing your thread, showing anxiety and totally missing out important sections of your presentation!  The bad news is that all these things will still happen to all of us at some point.  What improvisation does is give us the practise, the skills and the confidence that we have the resources to deal with those situations when they occur.  Anybody’s microphone can fall off, but how we deal with that situation can actually win more respect.

Improvisation exercises and games deal with those moments of unpredictability, spontaneity and resourceful thinking.  Combined with an atmosphere of playful and collaborative teamwork, this can really work those agility muscles.  It may not feel like you are working on your presentation skills when you are in an improvised scene with someone who has just surprised you with their last line, but if you can learn to deal with that, you will be far better prepared for the unexpected moments in your presentation.

“I finished the session by giving everyone the opportunity to be the centre of attention and tell a collaborative story, putting into practise all the tools from the workshop.”  

Finalists’ work includes a chatbot for real time discounts at restaurants near you; a solar-powered bike light; a mental health toolkit, developing sound design workshops for well-being in the workplace; and a Bluetooth bracelet that acts as a ‘dead man’s switch’ for people with dangerous illnesses.  So many great ideas being pitched in a just a few days time – good luck to you all from Maydays HQ.

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