Article Category: Delivery Techniques

Boost Your Speaking Confidence Through Improv


The floor is open for discussion. You have a burning question that you want to ask, but as you try to formulate it, someone asks a different question and the topic has moved on.

Have you ever been at an industry conference, a PTA meeting, or a community gathering where you wanted to stand up and voice your opinion, but couldn’t find the words or didn’t have the confidence to put yourself out there?

This article shows how you can gain public speaking confidence using an unlikely method — by practicing improv comedy.

What is improvisational comedy?

Remember the TV show, Who’s Line Is It Anyway? The stars would be placed in a scene or character, and they would entertain us with their on-the-spot confidence and skills.

Improvisational comedy — or just plain improv — is the trained skill of improvised acting and spontaneously creating hilarity. If you are like me, you may view spontaneity as creating new things on the spot — creativity on demand. But spontaneity is something you already possess. It is about removing the mental blocks to your innate creativity, and letting your inner self shine.

We often have a gut instinct about what is funny in the moment and that can serve us well. Training in improv comedy allows you to recognize those moments, relax, and let your spontaneity flow. You will stress less about what is and isn’t allowed, and speak up more freely.

Learning by playing

One of the first things you learn at improv is to get in a playful state. What this means is that you let go of the need for perfection. Let go of the wish to affect the outcome – to always want to be successful and to avoid failure. Just play. Regardless of the outcome.

When you are doing improv, you learn to do before you think too much. Act as soon as the thought appears. If you start to think about it, and imagining what can go wrong, you won’t express the creativity. Be willing to reveal that inner self that usually gets censored. When you play, you can be any character you want to be.

Just play. Regardless of the outcome.

Improv games you can play

Find a friend or group of friends who are open to learning new skills.

You can practice these exercises as long as you want, but each round should last about two minutes.

Game 1: Word-at-a-time storytelling

This is an exercise for two people. The goal is to tell a story one word at a time alternating between the two people.

For example: (Person A) Once, (Person B) upon, (A) a, (B) time, (A) I, (B) walked, (A) into, (B) a, (A) tree, and so on.

When starting out, you may find it easier to frame what the story is about before starting. This gives the participants an idea of the direction of the story. For example, “Go into a forest and kill a monster.” Then leave the details up to the participants.

Game 2: Speaking in Gibberish

This can be practiced alone. However, to get the best effect, you need to get feedback, so at least two people are recommended.

Act out a scene without using your verbal skills. You’ll notice how much of communication is actually non-verbal as you can still tell a lot with non-verbal cues (e.g. pointing to a watch or showing a surprised or angry expression).

Game 3: Questions are the answer

This is a game for two people who get placed in a scene and then they share a dialogue around it. The rule is that you can only ask questions. No answers, statements or explanations – always answer a question with a question.

Keep trying to move the conversation forward, so stay clear of circular arguments, i.e. why? Why not?

For example, suppose the scene is a pet shop.

  • Person A: Do you have any puppies?
  • Person B: What kind of puppies do you like?
  • Person A: What about german sheppard puppies?
  • Person B: Male or female puppies?
  • … and so on.

Game 4: Play with an imaginary object

Improv comedy isn’t as scary as it is made out to be.

Stand in a circle with your group of friends. One-by-one, pick up an imaginary object from a the table in front of you, interact with it, and pass it on to person next to you. They will then take it, interact with it, and put it back on the table.

You have to make it clear what the object is, so that the person next to you knows how to interact with it.

For example, pick up an imaginary lollipop, lick it a few times, put it in your mouth (with the tongue bulging out your cheek), before taking it out and passing it to the next person.

Game 5: Narrating a story

Two people play this game. One person narrates while the other acts out the story.

There are two variations you can play. In variation A, the narrator prescribes what the other person should act out. In variation B, the actor acts out a story, and the narrator responds by describing it.

For example:

  • Variation A: Narrator says “The man saw a big monster and took out his sword” (and the actor then performs the action as described).
  • Variation B: The actor acts surprised and exaggerates taking a sword out of a sheath (and the narrator describes what is happening).

Improv lessons will boost your speaking confidence

The lessons you learn in improv are valuable, and will improve your confidence as a speaker.

  • In improv, you learn to think on your feet; this will hone your on-the-spot speaking skills too.
  • Improv works best if you make the other participants look good; in speaking, you look good if you make the audience feel good about their chances to succeed.
  • When you are having fun doing improv, the audience has fun too; with public speaking, the audience will enjoy themselves if you are enjoying yourself.
  • In improv, you learn the outcome isn’t always controlled by you; the same goes with public speaking: you need to take the pulse of the audience continuously and adjust where necessary to keep them engaged.
  • In improv, you practice and gain expertise in many speaking tools. Vivid body language to engage the audience; setting a scene and playing a character; good storytelling skills; and directing attention through asking questions are just a few critical speaking skills.

Try it out!

If you have the opportunity to join an improv course or workshop, do it. Or, gather a group of friends and hold your own event. Improv comedy isn’t as scary as it is made out to be. It is not just for performers but anyone wishing to become more confident in front of an audience. So, sign up and have a blast, and become a more confident speaker in the process.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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Comments icon8 Comments

  1. Lilian says:

    Thanks for this great article! Just the info I was looking for!

  2. Lynn says:

    I’m a big fan of improv. I took classes in improv for exactly the reasons above. It definitely helped me learn to think on my feet – and to not worry about being perfect in front of groups. Great article. Thanks.

  3. Brilliant write up about the value of improvisational classes and public speaking. At Jester’z Improv we have lot of people come through out classes looking for the same techniques that you’ve mentioned in the article!

  4. Great article and one reason I started doign Improv. The other reason – it’s a lot of FUN! We laugh and laugh and get to play pretend which as adults, we don’t often get the chance to get out of our heads and being serious and responsible. Great fun ANd it’s a great learning experience for speakers.

    The funny thing – many actors are terrified of Improv as there are no lines. I love improv as there are no lines to memorize.
    Patti Pokorchak, MBA

  5. If you are looking for
    more improv games you might want to consider the classic:
    Theater Games for the Lone Actor by Viola Spolin.
    She is the “godmother” of Chicago based improv.

    David Alger
    Pan Theater
    (We make stuff up)

  6. Tom says:

    I wish I’d seen this years ago, saved me much trouble, gave me tons of confidence.

  7. Eugenia says:

    I think these are great ideas, but it’s not easy to implement them. As Table Topics Master, I’ve tried 3 of these games, and it appears that people need repeated coaching in all instances.

    For some reason, when people have to speak one word at a time, they get so anxious that they lose their ability to count!

    Similarly, when they’re told they can only speak gibberish, it’s as if YOU’RE the one who’s speaking gibberish. Some people just don’t hear you, or can’t do it.

    Only asking questions–another tough exercise for most.

    On the bright side, one speaker who had had a very difficult time using vocal variety or gestures in his speeches suddenly came alive, was incredibly engaging, humorous, and energetic without using a single word. I’m looking forward to his next speech–to see if he transfers these skills to his speeches.

  8. Lyn says:

    Am just starting acting classes, and am interested in all the help, I can get from your articles!

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