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Got a tough crowd? Need to conduct a meeting or have a difficult conversation? Learn how to improvise so you move forward and win the crowd. And don’t miss the 3 fun exercises!

You will also learn:

  • How to makes your presentation more relevant to the moment;
  • How to conduct a productive meeting;
  • How to bounce back after making a mistake in speaking;
  • Why improv gives you confidence to adapt to any situation.

00:00 Welcome to Steal the Show with Michael Port. I’m Michael and this episode is How to Improvise Your Way Into the Hearts and Minds of the Toughest Crowds. And this episode, as well as the others, are based on my book ‘Steal the Show’, which you can pick up anywhere books are sold. You can also get bonuses if you go to I’ve got lots of stuff there for you that you can get with a purchase of a book; free content creation and storytelling templates, tickets to live events around the country, videos on public speaking, and much, much more. My goal in life is to entertain and delight you, and also help you see just how fantastic you are.

00:44 There is a concept in the theater called “Yes, and.” It is the foundation of all improvisation. The idea is you don’t say “no” to anything that comes your way, you say “yes” and you build on it. So for example, if you and I are doing a scene, an improvised scene, and you walk in and you say, “Oh my God! I’m in so much pain, I just broke my leg!” And I say, “No, you’re fine. Don’t worry about it.” I go back to my book. It’s over, it’s done. But if you walk in and say, “Oh my God! I’m in so much pain, I just broke my leg!” And I say, “Oh my God, that’s terrible. But you know what? Your hair looks fabulous.”

01:30 Well, now we’ve got somewhere to go. You might say, “I know, doesn’t it look great? I was at the salon, I was in the chair, they used so many chemicals, I fell off the chair, broke my leg and I hobbled home.” Well, now we have somewhere to go, we can move forward with this scene. Then the same thing is true in life; when we say, “No,” we shut others down. When we use the word, “But,” we shut others down. When we say, “Yes,” we build on what’s possible. It is a creative, imaginative, generative way of looking at the world. So by embracing a handful of powerful ideas driven by the core technique of saying, “Yes, and.” You can improvise successfully and more frequently in more adverse and diverse situations. So you use improv to make bridges so you can go from where you are to where you wanna be. And the whole concept of saying, “Yes,” is about moving action forward, that’s what improv is for. When you’re selling, you wanna move action forward. When you are in a job interview, you wanna move action forward. When you are in a negotiation, you wanna move action forward. When you are on a first date, you wanna move action forward. You see, that’s what improv is for, it helps with all manner of public experiences. Difficult conversations between managers and their direct reports, well, you need a little bit improv. Pitch meetings, need a little bit of improv.

03:11 Being in the moment, because you’ve been fully prepared, it frees you up to fill those awkward or dead spaces between scripted portions, and that’s what improv is all about. See, this taps into the core idea that to keep the action moving forward, you have to add to whatever you’ve been given. Continuing on with our hair salon theme, let’s say your counterpart walks in and says, “I just got the greatest shampoo from my salon and they gave me a free bottle, do you want any?” Well, you might say, “I love shampoo, I just can’t use it ’cause I’m bald. But I use it on my chest hair, though.” You see, even bad jokes about being bald seem to land, I don’t know why. I think it’s because people feel sorry for people without hair and I appreciate that. So they’re either sympathetic or they’re laughing at us, either way I’ll take it because any way I can get a laugh, it works for me. Now, improv, it helps you perform quickly on your feet. Using prepared bits for Q&A during the speaking event, improv is what’s gonna save the day, even if you have a prepared bit. So with a little experience, you’ll have set answers and stories that you found to work and when you are in the moment, you mix and you you match these to the question to keep bridging from one Q&A to the next, in what can seem like an effortless performance, that’s improv.

04:48 At a wedding, you might give a toast after another member of the wedding party gives his own toast, but you build on it by thanking him for a great toast and adding a few more thoughts that are relevant. But if you’re not prepared for your toast, you’re gonna have a hard time doing that well. Now, you use improv to build on whatever is happening and make it better, so rather than freezing up, use improv if something is going wrong and ask yourself, “How can I make it better?” Instead of, “Oh (beep), what the (beep) is happening?” You say, “How can I make it better?” By the way, that’s the first time I’ve cursed in my entire podcast and I did it twice in one sentence and that’s pretty impressive. Okay, for example, say there’s a fire drill during a speech you’re making. In that instance, you become the fire marshal. You don’t have to have a hat or a badge, but you’re in front of the room with the microphone, so you take the lead. And if you are at the hotel, have staff find out if this is a drill or a response to an alarm and you need to get out of the building. So you reassure the audience, you’ve got everything under control and you direct them to the doors. And when the presentation continues, you pick up where you left off without dwelling on the distraction.

05:58 See, improv uses your capacity to step up, to lead, to make a difference rather than hoping someone else will. If you’re giving a speech and the lights go out, there’s a little blackout, tell everybody to stay calm and you’re gonna continue on because, after all, they don’t really need to see you, they can listen. And so this way, if you’re so well-prepared, if you’re so good at what you’re doing that you don’t need any slides, you’ll be safe. The idea of making things better also extends to your content. So when you improvise, you should make others look good. You don’t want your improv to be sarcastic or at anyone else’s expense, the kind of improv I’m taking about isn’t stand up comedy. You have to get other people to want to come with you. Now, think of how well this works in terms of dating. With the, “Yes, and,” approach, your date’s embarrassing story is a cue for you to tell an embarrassing story about yourself. Your date’s miscue or misstatement isn’t awkward, but a, “Yes, and.” It’s a moment for you to keep the conversation going and to connect over a similar experience. You use improv to stay mindful and tuned in because the more you’re inclined to say, “Yes, and” to act as if, to stay in the moment on a daily basis, the more you will notice, the better you will pay attention, and the more mindful you will be of what others in your life are saying and doing.

07:23 The improv principles, they lead you to a kind of mindfulness where you’ll have more presence and live more in the present, so you employ these principles. If you do, it actually works when you consistently use them, and you use improv to ask, are you in or are you out? I like that learning to say, “Yes, and,” is about finishing what you started. In improv, actors are taught not to prejudge. You jump in, jump in deep, and find out what works. Now, what happens then is you become much more engaged in making things happen than in questioning why things happen to you. The commitment to keep at it that improv requires, it can make for a clarifying and very refreshing change from the, excuse the French that I’m about to use, half-ass nature of many business transactions. My view is that too many times in business and other realms, people say things that they don’t mean. They make promises they don’t intend to honor or just don’t care enough to finish strong. And to be fair, people often hold back on a commitment if they sense that they will be unfairly judged or evaluated. But introducing improv principles and techniques is an excellent antidote in this kind of malaise in the workplace or team. It keeps the folks in the moment and it creates a positive space were colleagues know that their ideas won’t be shot down.

08:53 You can start a new meeting, say, with an improvisation exercise about revamping the company’s website or social media strategy. You begin planning for the department’s presentation at the annual sales conference with an improv exercise aimed at putting untried ideas on a white board. As the improv goes around the table, no one is excluded. Now obviously, there’s a place to challenge, ask questions, and push back against the status quo, but too often, this is the easy way out of not following through on a commitment. Through improv, you can rediscover what children learn from playing games in the third or the fourth grade, either you’re in or you’re out. So I’m not interested in the devil’s advocate. If you’re a devil’s advocate, I don’t want you on my team. I like people who find holes and plug them, who fix them, but I’m not interested in people who just poke holes. Those are two entirely different things. So if you are around someone who consistently says, “I’m just gonna be the devil’s’ advocate here for a second,” ask them if they are in or if they’re out. And by that, I mean ask them if they are willing to figure out a better way to do things rather than just be the devil’s’ advocate. And if they are not, then you can show them the door. Respectfully, of course.

10:16 Now, this aspect of being in or out is incredibly important to what you do in your speeches. If an audience can sense that you’re not 100% committed, they’ll turn you off. I’ve seen it happen too many times. If a time comes when you’re scheduled to speak and you’re distracted by a business problem or maybe a personal worry or a pressing deadline, use the principles as I have done at many times. Act as if this is the biggest speech of your life. True, you may have to visualize that, you may have to imagine that, but if you raise the stakes and remember that you have people out there in your network and in your family who have your back, well that’s improv too. And at the end of the day, doing this stuff beats listening to it. I can speak all day about improv and you can listen to me speak all day about improv, but to really get it, you need to work at it. So to close out this episode, I’m gonna give you some improv exercises that you can do and the first one is the story, story game. It’s done in a group, however large or small, doesn’t matter, and you can arrange yourself in a circle or sit next to each other, doesn’t really matter.

11:28 And then the group is given a theme, maybe a children’s bedtime story, a Spaghetti Western, a reality TV show, or any other scenario that gives the people a sense of setting time and place, along with an opening line like, “The cat jumped over in the moon.” So one person begins building upon the opening line, and in the next critical moment, the facilitator says, “Next,” and the next person picks up the thread and continues building on the story. The game continues quickly with no breaks until the facilitator calls it to a close. And this simple format can also be used to teach storytelling by having the first person create act one, second person create act two, and the third person create act three. So act one is the present circumstances, the given circumstances, the time setting and place, act two is the conflict, and act three is the resolution. And you can go around in the circle and improve the stories in this way. It’s very fun, I love it. It’s my favorite game to play. You can do it without a theme also. You can just do it as a one-word story game, just someone starts and then the next person picks it up and the next person picks it up. Amy, my business partner and wife, depending on when you’re listening to this, either fiancee or wife, depending on when you’re listening, we do this all the time especially on long plane trips.

12:44 I can’t even begin to imagine how many people we’ve woken up with our uncontrollable laughter. Now, there’s another game that’s called the “gibberish game” and I used with great success with my clients. See, you break up a group of participants into pairs or you have them take turns, one participant plays an alien from another planet who doesn’t know any earthly language and is verbally limited to gibberish, vocalizations of any kind, as long as they aren’t words, like, [gibberish]. That’s gibberish. Now, you don’t know what I said. I do, I know exactly what I said. Now, fortunately in this particular game, there’s a translator who does speak the language that I speak and also speaks the language that you speak, and they will translate the story that I’m telling to you. You see the message, the alien has given a message to get across like, “I need to bring three million big Macs and fries to my planet,” which, of course, would be a sensible thing. Or, “Our spaceship runs on grease, so we need 15 truckloads of bacon,” something like that. And then the translator quickly figures out how to communicate that. You see? And she’s gonna have to improvise the telling of the story and the alien is gonna have to improvise all manner of intents, wild and super-animated body language to have any chance of being able to be understood by the translator.

14:11 Now typically, when people playing the alien go bigger and really bounce off the walls with their energy, they have more success. And for the translator, he’ll be guessing at the alien’s’ content, which, of course, makes for some hysterical translations. See? This kind of thing takes a little bit of, let’s say, risk, a little bit of play, but if you’re willing to play, well, then you can break through the barriers that hold you back, that constrain you into this small, very rigid, tight person. You wanna be a performer who plays, who laughs, who giggles, who has fun, who’s willing to be silly, who’s willing to take chances, who’s okay with screwing things up. I’ve got no problem with it. You should go write a review that says, “This is an absolutely brilliant podcast. I love it, I learn so much. Five stars all the way.” I don’t accept anything less than five stars by the way. And you can say, “And the coolest thing is, every once and a while, he screws up and it’s so normal. And I realized through the process that, wow, performance is not something you have to be perfect at. Performance is something that you have to enjoy, and that’s what’s most important.”

15:24 All right, now there’s a Tell Me a Secret game. Now, this requires at least two people, but can include as many people as you want. In the game, each person tells a secret. It is either true about himself, or true about a friend as if it were his own secret, or he fabricates a secret. It’s a fascinating game in that it gives people the opportunity to open up and express themselves in meaningful ways. Sometimes they’ll act as if they’re telling a fabricated story or a story about their friend, but it’s actually a story about them and it’s a way for them to get out the truth. And when you get out the truth, you tend to be free. Hiding anything in your life that creates a barrier is only gonna hold you back from being a performer, you wanna free yourself up from those kind of barriers, and this game is a great tool to make that happen. Now, the internet and your local library, they offer books and resources packed with dozens of group improv games for the workplace and for the classroom. And many are simple, and many are appropriate for non-actors, so I say go get one. Oh, wait a minute, better yet, get ‘Steal the Show’. Oh, I’m so happy I thought that.

16:45 You can get it anywhere books are sold, you can go to, and if you purchase the book or purchase a couple books, you can get access to free content creation templates, storytelling templates, tickets to live events around the country, videos on public speaking and coaching, and so much more. That’s a great idea, I’m glad you thought of it. Look, in 2011, the Emmy Award winning actress, Amy Poehler, she gave a speech at Harvard University’s Class Day and it went viral in a good way. The speech was about how the particulars on the secrets of live comedy and improv have sustained her through a long and acclaimed career. And she was speaking to everybody out there, not actors, just like what I’m doing with this book, I’m trying to speak to you, not actors. In deconstructing the elements of good comedy, she made some really smart observations about the mindset of improv and she said, I quote, “I moved to Chicago in the early 1990s and I studied improvisation there. I learned some rules that I try to apply still today. Listen, say yes, live in the moment, make sure you play with people who have your back, make big choices. Don’t start a scene where two people are talking about jumping out of a plane. Start a scene having already jumped. And if you’re scared, look into your partner’s eyes, you will feel better.”

18:12 And remember, improv is a mindset based on saying, “Yes and,” it’s a trained ability that goes far beyond comedy. Improv gives you confidence to adapt to any situation, improv makes your presentation more relevant to the moment. Every speaker faces difficult situations and surprises at some point, improv is great training for saving those moments during a performance, and we need to be able to improvise because we’re often paired with or selling to people who we don’t feel comfortable with. And improv has a discipline and improves mindfulness and it fosters the ability to build on whatever is happening to find ways to make it better. So I think you would know by now that this podcast series is based on ‘Steal the Show’. You should go get it, but first, you should give a review, five stars, you should subscribe so you can get every episode that I drop and I’m dropping them five days a week right now, and I love you very much and not in a weird way, but I love you because you’re somebody, who stands in the service of others as you stand in the service of your destiny. You’re a big thinker, you care about your future, and you care about the future of others and that is admirable. This is Michael Port signing off, bye for now.