A couple of weekends ago my wife Googled “fun stuff to do at night in Atlanta.” What came up was a suggestion that we go see a newly formed “improv” troupe in the suburbs. So that’s where we headed with another couple.
We left at intermission. Walking to the car, my wife said, “Maybe you can get a column out of it.”
“I’m already on it,” I said. Indeed, our improv troupe highlighted several things that we should all keep in mind if we want to connect with audiences.
Lesson 1: Get the audience in the right frame of mind. When we showed up at the theater to get our tickets, the person who helped us was seated behind a cheap folding table. The sparse waiting area consisted of a few chairs and a small platform where several of us sat drinking beer.
I know that these kinds of businesses are often shoestring operations. But the low-rent nature of everything worried me. It didn’t put me in an “I’m-getting-ready-to-laugh-and-have-fun” frame of mind.
Similarly, if you want your presentation to go well, try to put people in the right frame of mind when they’re waiting for you to start. One effective idea is to mingle with the audience. Before making a presentation at a conference, for example, you can approach early arrivals with, “I’m looking forward to speaking with you today. What are you hoping to learn?”
If a couple of our improv performers had mingled with us as we waited, we would have built a connection.
Lesson 2: Being funny is hard. When I was a newspaper reporter in New York, I would visit the world-renowned comedy clubs in Manhattan. Even with three or four performers a night, usually only one comic was truly funny.
I’m sure that our eight improv performers had attended classes and worked hard at their craft. But none of us laughed.
So you can understand why I’m always hesitant when clients ask, “Can you help me be funny?” My usual response is, “Let’s just focus on connecting with the audience and helping them with their problems.”
People work their whole lives at being funny. The idea that a businessperson can “pick up” humor with a few tips is, well, funny.
Lesson 3: Improv is really hard. Our improv troupe began by asking that we give them the name of a restaurant and a weather pattern. Someone shouted out “The Varsity” and “snow storm.”
These trained improv performers weren’t able to turn that into anything that made sense to me or anyone else in my group. I nodded off, which was embarrassing since I was in the front row of the largely empty theater.
And yet I regularly have clients tell me things like, “I’m best when I’m not too prepared. I like to wing it.”
I agree that it’s not a good idea to recite your presentation word for word. But there is no such thing as being over-prepared. The notion that you will be able to improvise something interesting in the moment is not reasonable.
Mingle with the audience beforehand. Focus on connecting with your listeners, rather than making them laugh. And prepare well. Do those things and you’ll reduce the chances of anyone walking out at intermission.