Improv For Winners!

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by Liz Peters

We all have bodies. Some have big ones, some have small ones. There are brown ones, white ones, squidgy ones, bony ones…  We are all so wonderfully different but essentially made from the same mould. And we all use our bodies to instinctively communicate with one another.  Every action, movement and gesture that we make sends out signals to a greater or lesser degree.

 I’m angry. I’m attracted to you. I feel sad. I’m nervous.

It’s such a natural part of our existence that most of the time this happens unconsciously.  We don’t need to tell our bodies to do these things, they happen all by themselves, exposing our inner thoughts and feelings without our explicit permission. We all innately recognise these signals in others and studies show that up to 93% of our communication is non verbal. With that in mind its worth taking a little time to notice what you are actually saying to the world with your body.

Consider this: You are at a presentation. Speaker A (let’s call him Bob) steps on to the stage to pitch his fantastic new product. It’s a Time Travelling Machine and he has just returned from the future. He shuffles from one foot to the other behind the podium with his hands in his pockets. His head is low and he does not make eye contact with anyone in the room. Someone asks a question he sighs, bites his nail and rolls his eyes to the ceiling. Then he folds his arms and frowns as he answers.

Speaker B (Frank) steps on stage. He too has created a Time Travelling Machine which he believes can take you to the future. He is passionate about his product and moves confidently around the stage.  His face and body are open and relaxed. He looks each person in the eyes as he talks. He is energised and inspiring. Someone asks a question. He nods, smiles and punctuates his answer with assertive hand gestures.

Which Time Travelling Machine are you going to go with? Suspicious looking Bob or friendly, open Frank?

Let’s look again and what’s really going on.

Bob isn’t a natural public speaker. He is nervous. He feels exposed on the stage so he physically closes in to protect himself: puts his hands in his pockets, hides behind the podium and struggles to find a stance in which he is comfortable. He stares at his notes as it feels safer than having to acknowledge the hundreds of pairs of eyes looking at him. Someone asks him a question and he sighs as he takes it in. His eyes flick up to the ceiling as he searches through his many time travel memories and he frowns with concentration as he recounts the tale. The man has a perfect product but his presentation skills do not inspire confidence.

Frank is a charismatic and engaging speaker but his Time Travelling Machine has never been tested. Nevertheless, many people would go with Frank.

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Being aware of the signals we emit is crucial in today’s world. With so many people vying for our attention we filter out perceived ‘weak’ contenders quickly.

Improvisation classes help us to tune back into our bodies and get used to inhabiting different characteristics. We can start to recognise our own habits and try out new ones. We learn ways to physically and vocally increase (or decrease) our status.

Simple things like: are you aware of how much you move your head when you talk? A person whose head remains still when they speak is considered more reliable and higher status than someone who moves it a lot. This awareness means that Bob can still be Bob but for the time he is on that stage he can play the role of someone who is confident and inspirational, which in turn will inspire confidence in him and his product.


Transforming ourselves through play can transform our outlook on life.  As I’ve got older I’ve become less fearful.  I’ve been in so many situations where I have been incredibly nervous, unsure of my ability to do what is demanded but I’ve always managed to ‘blag’ it by acting like a confident person who knows what’s going on.  Through doing improv I’ve got so used to pretending to be someone else in an alien environment that just slipping on my confident hat and getting on with it doesn’t seem that weird. Even if on the inside your guts are churning and you can’t wait for it to be over so you can have a well deserved pint.  The point is that when you’re having that pint, the job is done and you did it. Whether you feel like you blagged it or not, you did it. Therefore you are capable of it.  Therefore you didn’t ‘blag’ it.  You just had to shift your persona momentarily into that of someone who knew they could get the job done rather than dithering amongst your own insecurities and failing through fear.

We compare ourselves to successful people constantly. But we are only comparing ourselves to the image that they present to the world.  Maybe Richard Branson feels a tight, sick knot of dread in his heart when he speaks to the press. Maybe Barack Obama has to do a horror poo before he addresses congress.  Who knows how they really feel? The presentation says ‘You can believe in me. I am a winner’ and that’s what counts.  People buy into confidence. They certainly wouldn’t have got where they are today if they ‘ummed’ and ‘erred’ and shuffled around anxiously onstage.

Improvisation is not just a silly gimic or a party game.  It is a life changing tool. The skills you develop increase creativity, build confidence and help you keep calm under pressure.  Presentations become easier and the unexpected becomes something to relish, not fear.

We all want to operate at the best of our ability. Improv unlocks our potential and allows us to be more than the narrow parameters we set for ourselves. It opens the mind as well as the body and helps us to shake off our shackles.

We can be anything.

After all, if one minute you are wizened old soothsayer with a crooked spine muttering incantations to the devil and the next you are an achingly handsome spy rescuing a hot babe from a burning building, then selling a Time Travelling Machine to a room full of ordinary people will be a doddle.

1 Comment
  1. Jim Mitchell

    Great post Liz. Totally agree that improv is a great medium for learning many skills applicable to both your business and personal life.

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