Delivering engineered and recalled content requires some improvisation skills. In this section, however, we’ll explore that part of your interactive presentation which is truly improvised and how to cope with mistakes. Genuine spontaneity is intoxicating for both you and your audience. So, improvised content should be sprinkled like a spice throughout your delivery. A little goes a long way.
Also, as an educational presenter, it’s obviously important that your improvisations do not undermine the quality of your explanations or the safety of any activity you are performing.
“… an honest stand-up comedian will admit that the moments of pure improvisation account for less than five percent of their act.”
Oliver Double (comedian and researcher)
2.5.1 How to improvise
Improvisation is hard to define, but it’s about being fully present so you can react spontaneously and honestly to whatever happens around you. It’s about living in the moment. It’s about listening.
For the presenter, the experience of improvising feels both thrilling and scary. Weirdly, you find words emerging from your mouth without your conscious brain forming them. It has to race to catch up. These words often seem to be weak when you consider them later in isolation. Their raw spontaneity, however, will have a dramatic impact on the audience.
Improvisation rescues you
When you give interactive presentations, improvising isn’t a choice. It’s an essential survival skill. Improvisation also keeps you present when you feel you’re losing focus; builds your confidence in being able to respond to whatever happens; and helps you create tweaks or lines for established routines.
The improv mindset
Improvisation is a much-misunderstood craft. More than anything, the success of your improv depends on being able to adopt certain mindsets. Although each principle can be summarised in a paragraph, it takes a lifetime of practice to truly master them.
- relax — stress and conscious effort kill improvisation, so the more stage time you have under your belt and the better you know your presentation, the easier you will find this.
- be present — no matter what is happening in your job or your personal life, put all these thoughts away whilst you are presenting. Audiences love presenters who are interested enough in them to be able to do this. They can always tell if you’re not fully present with them.
- observe, listen and react — sense the details of your situation and just respond authentically to them as your presenting character. This will make you instantly watchable.
- be willing to fail — for once, don’t edit yourself. Lose all those inhibitions you’ve picked up as an adult. Allow yourself to take risks and have fun. The paradox is that the more willing you are to fail with improv, the less likely this will happen. I should stress that the risks I’m referring to here are to do with your prepared delivery, not with the physical or emotional safety of the audience.
- develop trust first — before spectators and volunteers will be willing to improvise with you, they need to trust you (1.4).
- look forward and accept offers — adopt an open attitude to the offers you are given, so you can change your approach to keep your audience engaged. This also means you are less likely to be thrown by the many distractions you’ll face.
- don’t try to be original, smart or funny — these motivations are common with inexperienced improvisers, but they are all fatal. “Get outside your head”, as they say in improv, and just react without thinking or planning where this is going.
“Improv is like walking backwards. You cannot see where you are going, only where you have been.”
Gary Izzo (director)
Visibility is always a problem when you’re presenting from a low, temporary stage to a large audience who are seated on one level. In this family show it was a particular problem as the room was completely packed and there were some children at the back struggling to see everything.
As it happens, one of the workshops at this science festival had been about making your own periscopes from cardboard tubes and mirrors. I could see various spectators holding their periscopes by their sides. Then without being aware of the conscious thought process, I heard these words stumble out of my mouth, “You know … I always love coming back to this festival. The audiences are so prepared. You even bring your own periscopes … to see right from the back!”
Let’s be honest — this is a fairly obvious observation under the circumstances and not particularly funny. But, delivered at that precise moment, it went down a storm. Cue sustained laughter between families (that’s when you know you’ve really landed with a line) and lots of periscopes rising across the room. I was also able to call back to this moment by giving the “Up periscopes!” instruction at several points later in the performance.
When improvising, your unconscious does the hard work for you, if you let it. The most difficult part about this bit was re-creating it with the same conviction in every other show for the rest of the weekend.
Of all the tools in this book, improvisation is one of the most futile to try to learn from reading alone. It’s a presentation muscle that requires continual exercise and reflection. To aid that reflection, though, these are some common improv techniques which informal educators can use in their presentations:
- leaving enough room to play without purpose — deliberately give yourself the freedom to improvise for a small part of each presentation and see where it takes you. When you do this alongside an established script, this is a low-risk way of keeping fresh and discovering new bits, e.g. experimenting with what you say when you are setting up a demonstration.
- “yes, and …” — in conventional improv, players are trained to follow a cycle of accepting offers and then building on them by advancing the action in some consistent way. This technique helps to prevent them from blocking new possibilities. For us, however, this doesn’t mean having to accept every offer from a spectator or the environment. It is more about being open and alert to possibilities, so you can make a quick decision about whether to accept them.
- notice the here and now — observe details in the room and draw attention to them as a way of grounding yourself in the present. This shows audiences you are attuned to them and the situation.
“You learn early on, that if you don’t react to something that happens in the crowd, the audience lose faith in you.”
Milton Jones (comedian)
- backleading — covertly guiding a person to do something which leads you into a prepared engineered subroutine (2.3) can require considerable improvisation.
- incorporation — taking an offer from a volunteer or the situation and naturally building it into the action (2.3). For instance, when you take an unexpected call out from a spectator and riff off it for a moment, not knowing exactly where you’re heading.
- learn the patterns underlying interactive presentations — despite appearances, improv is not about making everything up as you go along. Like jazz musicians who look as if they are free-wheeling, presenters who improvise are, in fact, relying on a library of learnt, subtle patterns. Their unconscious brains combine these satisfying patterns to engage their audience, e.g. allowing the underdog to win in a competition between volunteers.
- re-incorporation — this is the term used in improv to describe how you can repeat or refer to an earlier line or situation in the presentation. The more unexpected the original offer and the more crucially that your call back depends on this offer, the more impressive audiences will find your re-incorporation. These references can be planned or spontaneous.
People enjoy the recognition moment triggered by call backs and how they celebrate a shared experience. Effective presenters remain alert for unusual incidents which they can call back to later — their re-incorporation radar. For instance, after I’ve presented the uphill tin demo (2.3), I will be looking for relevant opportunities to refer back to the hamster and the volunteer who suggested it several times later in the show.
Call backs like this can unify a presentation and reveal a theme which gives the impression you knew how things would turn out eventually, even if you didn’t (structural call backs, 7.5).
“The last 20 minutes of my act is all call backs.”
Mac King (magician — known as “the call back King”)
- digging a hole for yourself — if you find yourself stuck in a rut, use improvisation techniques to do something differently so you are forced out of your comfort zone and your unconsciousness has to save you. For instance, misplace a prop on purpose so you have to come up with some new lines to cover as you retrieve it.
- endowing a volunteer or spectator — this is where you pick up on an attitude or a trait from someone you interact with and through your language and tone you subsequently encourage them to play up to this role (6.5). For example, a teasing call-out from a Dad in a family show allows you to make him into the role of cynic for the rest of the presentation.
- playfully challenging volunteers — asking your helper to do something that is challenging or embarrassing for the apparent sake of the routine. But this must be done light-heartedly and with good intent, not simply to exercise your power. For instance, “persuading” a willing volunteer to put on a costume relevant to the activity. Ideally, the volunteer will then retaliate by making your life more difficult too — this helps to give the hook a sense of fairness for the audience.
2.5.2 How to deal with mistakes
As a performer, mistakes can either hurt or help you. Sometimes they can be distracting for you and the audience and at other times they can be irresistibly engaging.
How to cope with unwanted mistakes
In any live, interactive presentation you will make some distracting mistakes. You can reduce the likelihood of these problems through deliberation and practice, but you cannot eliminate them. All you can control is how you react to them.
These are some of the ways I encourage you to respond to these kind of presentation mistakes:
- remember, the audience are on your side — they forgive occasional slip-ups from presenters they like and trust. Your trust bank is your insurance policy.
- keep calm and carry on — they will never worry about your blunders onstage as much as you. They will only get uncomfortable when you visibly get uncomfortable. Breathe deeply. If you don’t show undue concern, neither will they. Also, bear in mind, any internal distress you feel is not as apparent to them as it is to you (the illusion of transparency).
- allow yourself to laugh — showing you can find the humour in your predicament makes you more likeable, relatable and confident. The best first response is often to pull a strong facial expression (a mug) and then freeze as the audience delights in your dilemma. You can milk these situations for as long as you dare (7.3 and 7.5).
- slow down — your instinct will be to speed up to get through the problem quickly. Do the opposite — speeding up will only alert the audience, reveal your insecurity and push you further into the vicious circle of a presentation death spiral.
- focus even harder on the audience — when we become aware of a mistake, we stop listening to the group and we move the focus of our attention internally, towards the error and how we’re feeling. Yet, this is the very time to increase your eye contact and connection with the audience. This takes courage. It is only through listening closely to the group and the situation, however, that your heroic unconscious can find the material to rescue you.
- incorporate quickly to minimise the mistake — if you don’t want an error to pull focus, try to incorporate the problem with a short, verbal acknowledgement of what has happened. Stand-ups refer to this as calling out the problem. Don’t allow yourself to dwell on the mistake mentally once you have moved on with the presentation.
- buy yourself time, if you need it — ask them a question, to give you some additional thinking time to try to work out what has gone wrong and how you’re going to recover.
- issue apologies wisely — say sorry if you have offended somebody accidentally, but don’t feel you need to apologise every time something goes wrong onstage.
- never resort to blaming others — no matter how responsible someone else may be for the situation, you have nothing to gain from making public accusations. In fact, you have everything to lose — you will look weak and disloyal.
- learn from your mistakes — record significant problems and near misses after the presentation, so you can plan how to reduce the risk of them happening again. Otherwise you’re condemning yourself to repeating them.
One of the most unkind ironies of presenting is that when we are inexperienced, we are least prepared to deal confidently with our frequent mistakes. Yet, when we are experienced and able to cope with almost anything, mistakes and unexpected situations are much less likely to occur. This natural progression happens because the hundreds of small cues we begin to use — consciously and unconsciously — to set-up situations and interact with learners, minimise potential errors and confusion.
“You can tell the quality of the performer by the way they handle their mistakes.”
Channing Pollock (magician)
Mistakes are offers too
Rather than seeing all your mistakes as problems, try to appreciate the power some of these offers can hold for you as an educator. Mistakes create focus — like any unexpected event (2.4), you will rarely have more attention from your audience than you do upon making a mistake. Your slip-ups empower the audience and make them laugh. Crucially, your response to a mistake also reveals the version of you they will trust the most.
Additionally, if it’s an activity which has failed (e.g. a science demo), you can deepen their understanding by fixing the issue and repeating the activity successfully the second time. This works even better if you can guide them to “help” you diagnose the fault.
These useful mistakes can be such powerful hooks that experienced educators deliberately engineer them to happen in each presentation, e.g. the “presenter-in-trouble” and “look, but don’t see” techniques (4.5).
When have things gone memorably wrong with one of your presentations? I’m compiling a collection of stories and examples of hooks from readers for HOOK wisdom, a future free resource to complement this book. You can find out more and submit your stories about using any hooks here.