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Presentation Lessons from Improv Comedy: 5 Tips to Plan What You Say Before You Open Your Mouth

When I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), my friends Wendy, Dave, Tom, Matt, Mike and I founded the school’s first improvisational comedy troupe. We had performed sketch and stand-up comedy before this – where everything was scripted – so changing our approach from a prepared routine to extemporaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, created in the moment comedy was a big shift for us.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), my friends Wendy, Dave, Tom, Matt, Mike and I founded the school’s first improvisational comedy troupe. We had performed sketch and stand-up comedy before this – where everything was scripted – so changing our approach from a prepared routine to extemporaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, created in the moment comedy was a big shift for us. One thing that we quickly learned as we moved from improv fans to improv performers was that, no matter how “unplanned” the performance looked or how “unprepared” the performers seemed, there was a significant amount of planning, preparation, structure and even rules that governed our work. The best spontaneity only looks spontaneous!

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That experience taught me a critical lesson that I use as a professional speaker and presentation skills coach today: you need to spend some planning time inside your head if you want what comes out of your mouth to have a positive, meaningful impact.

Whether you’re making a client pitch, a dinner speech, or even an internal update, here are five things that every professional needs to consider before speaking to any audience:

1.Identify who your audience is and what they are empowered to do. Don’t waste your time by designing a presentation aimed at decision makers if your audience is made up of gatekeepers. Don’t miss an opportunity to ask door openers to open doors for you, or for funders to fund you, or for doers to do something for you – all of which requires you doing some homework to figure out who will be in the room. Make sure that you customize your pitch to meet the needs and interests of this particular audience, and ask for what they can actually give you.

2.Get into the heads of your listeners. Your goal should be to tell the audience what they want and need to hear to help them take action, so take the time to analyze: 1) what they already know or believe about your topic; 2) what they want most; and 3) what they fear. Align your speaking points with those topics. If you’re looking to change minds and change behaviors, you’ll want to start where the audience already is – what they know, believe, want and fear – before you can move them to a new point of view.

3.Know your presentation goals. In addition to knowing your audience, you want to understand what you want your audience to feel, know, and do as a result of your presentation. As you write and re-write your presentation, keep asking yourself if your content is aligned with how you want them to feel, what you want them to do, and what you want them to know. Anything that isn’t a direct hit should get cut.

4.Create a clear, concise outline. Plan your structure before you start writing. It will help you stay on track, as well as separate the “need to know” from the “nice to know”. It will also help you see the holes in your presentation, as well as where you might need to make some cuts for time or clarity. When in doubt, stick to the Rule of Three – no more than three main points, and no more than three sub-points for each main point. Less is more, especially if you’re planning to speak somewhat extemporaneously.

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5.Choose the right structure and organization for this particular presentation. Is your goal best served by a problem and solution framework? Sharing past, present and future plans? Demonstrating local, national and global operations or impact? Explaining causes and effects? The possibilities are endless, but to keep your audience paying attention, you need to pick one structure and stick to it.

Like improv comedy, the best speakers sound extemporaneous (and interact with the audience) but have put considerable planning, thought and structure to work for them.

And…SCENE!

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About the author

Deborah Grayson Riegel, MSW, PCC is a communication maven, who specializes in providing emergency coaching for big presentations and tricky conversations, as well as high-energy workshops and keynotes. Her clients range from American Express, the Chinese Central Government and Kraft Foods to Pfizer, Toyota, and the United States Army

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