FAQ: How You Can Use Improv to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

By Charlotte Frankel

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If you're terrified of public speaking, you're not alone -- about 10 percent of the US population reports experiencing stage fright. That's millions of people who can't bear the thought of getting onstage and speaking to a crowd.

One of the best ways to overcome that fear is to throw yourself into it with a UCB improv workshop. Helping others with public speaking is a specialty of ours. We've worked with organizations from Nike to EMILY's List to Google, bringing them improv workshops to help everyone from senior executives to political candidates think faster on their feet and be more comfortable in the moment.

Today, we're talking with Chelsea Clarke, UCB's head of learning. She weighs in on the value of our public speaking workshops and why taking a workshop may sound scary, but it's actually a blast.

What kind of specific skills do you help people with?

We work with people primarily on communication skills. "Yes, and-ing" is main cornerstone of improv and usually the biggest takeaway from any of our workshops. We teach how to best use "yes, and," and why it’s useful for improving both collaboration and communication in business.

Can you detail how improv can help with public speaking?

Improv can be frightening for people. It can be a worst-case scenario for some to get up on stage and not know what they’re going to do. I think that exposing yourself to that fear and taking steps to overcome it can make public speaking in general less scary.

For those who are not necessarily afraid of public speaking, improv can be really helpful in learning how to roll with the unexpected, especially if you're working with a pre-planned speech and want to make it more engaging.

What’s a good improv warmup for someone nervous about saying the wrong thing?

We have a lot of improv warm-ups that force someone to say something when they need to versus when they have the right thing to say. Something like "seven things," where you have to just list seven things quickly and you don’t get to say "um" or pause, is an exercise you can do on your own and will help loosen you up before a presentation or meeting.

How do improvisers get comfortable in front of a crowd?

The best way is to expose the audience to your own personality early on. Banter helps the crowd warm up to you, and vice versa, since you’re both getting a peek at the personality of the other.

How can improv help with script-based public speaking, versus extemporaneous speech?

Being in tune with what’s happening in the room is really important to making script-based public speaking engaging. You have to be comfortable onstage in an extemporaneous way in order to pick up on things that are happening in the room and to feel confident enough to go off-script.

Can you give us an example of some of the more interesting kinds of workshops you’ve set up?

In terms of space, we did a few workshops in the old abandoned TWA terminal at JFK, which is a total blast-from-the-past place in that it’s absolutely gorgeous and looks like the '60s.

We’ve done workshop series to support some female political candidates that I think had twofold benefits. First, it was a fun event for them to do together and learn about one another and what was affecting their areas of the state and city. Second, the workshops gave them some tools to be more nimble communicating and talking with people, which is all politicians are doing all day.

We’ve also done some networking workshops that are about giving people some common painful scenarios in networking in a relatively safe space. The people in the workshops already know one another, so it’s all about testing some of the less comfortable networking situations you can be in, and how best to navigate them.

Why is improv so valuable as a tool for organizations?

It’s fun. It’s team-building. It provides inside jokes that people can reflect back on later, building connections with coworkers that they might not usually work with.

Alongside those benefits come the importance of “yes, and,” and the ability to call back to jokes from the workshop to get a meeting back on track.

Who benefits the most from taking an improv workshop?

I think anyone who thinks an improv workshop sounds frightening would best benefit from participating in one. If that sounds like a nightmare to you, to get up on stage and not know what’s going to happen, or to have to be funny on stage, then you should take it. It’s really nice to go into something thinking it’s going to be very difficult, and then doing it and realizing it’s not that bad -- and maybe even a little fun.

Charlotte Frankel is an improviser and an intern at UCB. She attends Middlebury College.