Improv and the Professional Speaker or Trainer 

By Milo Shapiro, CEO of IMPROVentures


Which is more important for the event professional:  Coming prepared or the ability to think on one’s feet?  Even as a professional improviser, I'd have to agree that, if one had to choose, coming prepared is probably more important.  But if you even gave the question a moment’s thought before coming up with that answer (or if you said they were both important), ask yourself this:  What training have you given yourself to prepare for the moments when you can’t be prepared?


This may seem like a dichotomy but I assure you it is not.  It’s no accident that, when things have gone awry, planners and audience members have congratulated me on handling the unexpected without looking flustered.  It comes directly as a result of improvisation training that anyone can try.


After all, in the midst of being highly professional with your planned material, how cool would you be if…


  • someone asks that question you didn’t expect then (or even later)
  • the cassette player with your closing music turns itself on twenty minutes into your presentation (while you're being videotaped)
  • the microphone stand is stuck at a height a foot over your head
  • it’s clear that the exercise that worked so well with Monday’s group…just ain’t impressing Tuesday’s
  • the A/V man loaded the wrong PowerPoint and you realize this six slides into starting your program


It’s not that qualified speakers and educators can’t handle these situation…of course they can.  It’s about how awkward the moment is for you and, worse, how uncomfortable the attendees feel because of it.  If you look uncomfortable, I can promise you that your message will be lost as the audience focuses on the problem instead of your material. 


In our improv shows, we know that not every scene will be a hit.  Part of what we train our performers to do is never let it show if they are displeased with their scenework.  The same applies to speaking and training.


Once the great pink elephant has entered the room, by all means acknowledge it tactfully and, if appropriate, with humor.  The PowerPoint situation above occurred when I was addressing a large Chamber of Commerce group.  Because the slide changes weren’t obvious until the sixth slide, I was well into my signature story opening before realizing the error.  It wasn’t just an older version that I didn’t like as much; the presentation currently on the screen would soon be lacking all the customization that I'd promised this group’s planner.  The room is all smiles looking at me, having no idea anything is wrong while I continue to both talk and think about what to do.


Initially, I kept talking until I could visually locate the A/V man.  When I found a good stopping point in the story, I looked at my screen and paused, as if first noticing the problem.  I said, “Hmm…would you all excuse me for just a moment?  Tom, I completely forgot that there were two PowerPoint icons on my desktop and you loaded the first one you saw.  Could I ask you to please load the other one while I continue?  Thank you so much.”


With this, I continued as if this had been no more of a distraction than someone sneezing…when in truth my heart was pounding furiously.  But no one there knew that.  By taking on the full error as having been my own (which was actually far from the truth), they didn’t feel concerned for Tom.  By continuing to smile and seemingly happily telling the rest of my tale while all the right PowerPoint was loaded, I held their attention and kept on schedule.  Once it was loaded, I joked as I flew through the slides they’d missed, recapping the story I'd told so far in ten seconds until I was caught up.  When I said, “And now we’re all caught up,” and smiled, it yielded applause. 


As my keynote program deals with moving past the fear of failure, I actually had two attendees approach me afterward to taunt me that they’d “seen through my act” - that they knew I'd done that on purpose to show that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.  I couldn’t convince them of the truth:  that I'd just handled a blunder in the way any improviser would…as a new challenge to have fun with.


Improv is fun, though-provoking, and trains the brain to look at all kinds of alternatives.  To find out where improv classes are in your area, try typing in the word “improv” and your city name.  Even theaters where improv is performed can usually refer you. 


Your training will become more entertaining and your stress levels will drop.  Knowing you have the skills set to handle whatever comes at you on the fly will open up new ideas in the moment when you see them.  More often than not, your gut will be right about following them.  And when they aren’t, remember:  The worst days make the best stories!


(word count for editors: 984)


Full byline:

After 15 years of Information Technology, Milo Shapiro risked colossal failure to focus full-time on applications of improvisation for businesses, conferences, and schools.  Through “IMPROVentures”, he offers TEAMprovising – teambuilding and communication exercises based in lessons of improvisation.  He works in a duo and solo as a motivational and entertainment speaker for businesses and conferences.  His book "The Worst Days Make The BEST Stories" and more info on him are at  our home page.   619-542-0761. 

Abridged byline, if the one above is beyond limitations:

Milo Shapiro applies improvisation to conferences and retreats, using improv fun for teambuilding & communication among staff.  He works in a duo and solo as a motivational and entertainment speaker for businesses and conferences. His book is "The Worst Days Make The BEST Stories".   619-542-0761. 

Super-abridged byline, if the one above is still beyond limitations:

Milo Shapiro applies improvisation to keynote speeches, conferences and retreats for teambuilding, sales, and personal development.   619-542-0761.