The power of improvisation

How do we handle the unexpected events that may occur during a presentation? In this article, some suggestions are provided to turn potentially negative situations into positive interactions with our audience.
The power of improvisation, precisely.

April 23rd 2024

Il potere dell'improvvisazione

“Whether the speaker is faced with an unexpected event or needs – or must – step out of the context to address a new situation, improvisation is a scenario as common as it is particular, one that must be managed to the best of our abilities.

Let’s start with unexpected events, which can lead us towards two different scenarios: a negative reaction, where speakers become confused, lose the thread, and thus compromise the entire intervention; a positive scenario where speakers, by ‘riding the wave,’ manage to turn the issue to their advantage through improvisation.

Certainly, the first of the two scenarios is the least desirable, which we will precisely try to avoid in this article…”

Let’s prepare for the unexpected.

Necessary premise: unexpected events can, to some extent, be anticipated… In other words, we must “take into account” that something may not go as planned.
What I mean by this is that some situations can, indeed must, be checked in advance to avoid problems.

First and foremost, technology needs to be tested. What happens if the computer freezes, if the remote control stops working, if the microphone refuses to cooperate? Do we have a backup computer, remote control, or microphone? And what if there’s a power outage? Do we have enough batteries for the computer, projector, etc.?
Not only should we have these “spare parts,” but we should also think about alternative strategies… If for some reason we can’t access our slides, do we have any paper-based support to help, such as a flip chart? Are we prepared for these eventualities?
So, if we dedicate some time to these assessments by preparing different “Plan B’s,” we will face any unexpected event in a calmer manner.

Let’s ride the wave.

Having made this important premise, let’s instead think about the situation in which we might be called upon to improvise. Well, it would be impossible to account for all the variables that can occur during a meeting… so let’s focus on ourselves, on how we could react. That’s the point: being ready and prepared to accept the problem, from the smallest (a ray of sunshine hitting the screen and hindering ideal visibility) to the most challenging (the venue where we’ve organized the meeting is suddenly inaccessible).

What will make the difference is our attitude, the ability to handle the problem that arises and to find the best possible solution. On one hand, the awareness that we’ve done our best to plan everything well, on the other hand, the willingness to find ideal solutions quickly.

This “awareness” (of being prepared for events) will help us stay calm and deal with any mishaps, especially by improvising. For example, if we can’t access our slides, not only should we have a paper-based backup, but we could also perhaps incorporate some additional storytelling into the presentation: an anecdote that happened to us or a narrative (the famous storytelling, the most beloved form of communication by humans). In short, “let’s ride the wave.”

Let’s turn a problem into an opportunity

By saying “improvise,” we mean the ability to handle a new and unexpected situation, which may seem negative, in the best possible way.
Here are a couple of examples: a member of the audience repeatedly asks questions and tends to speak at length each time, consuming valuable time; or, the time available to us is no longer what was planned.
In both cases, we’ll need to find a quick solution, which will also depend on our experience but above all on our mental preparedness.

Thinking about the two examples above, in the first case, we’ll need to kindly regain control of the conversation and explain that “further elaboration” on that topic can be postponed… Always with kindness but also with firmness, we’ll need to limit these interventions (for the benefit not only of us as speakers but also for the success of the event).

In the second case, if we have less time available, we must be adept at quickly selecting essential content, eliminating less focal points. However, if the opposite happens and we have more time than expected, we can slow down our presentation (speaking more slowly and clearly is always appreciated by the audience), giving more space to listeners. Encouraging audience participation, making the presentation a “conversation,” is an excellent tactic that will elevate the overall satisfaction level.

So, this is what we mean by “the power of improvisation.”

Il potere dell'improvvisazione

helps us improvise better.

“Usually it takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain

Improvisation is a skill that can prove very useful in other situations as well, such as those I describe below.

Let’s imagine we’ve unfortunately forgotten our paper notes in the office… Now, in a situation like this, we’ll likely need to improvise some parts of our presentation… How to go about it? If we don’t have a Plan B (for example, having them in digital format on our computer or a USB drive), the only solution is to have practiced the presentation adequately.

Preferably out loud, following each slide and preferably in front of a colleague or two. Notes often serve as a “psychological support”; it’s better to have them, but if we’re well-prepared on the subject matter, there’s no need to worry even without notes. We might improvise something if needed, but the visuals of our slides will guide us along the way.

Improvisation also means “riding the wave of the moment”: for example, during the presentation, something happens that distracts the audience (loud noises from outside, latecomers, an incoming storm); rather than continuing as if nothing happened, we should pause (usually when something like this happens, the audience is already distracted) and comment on what’s going on… Sometimes this can be done with humor, certainly with grace, but we certainly can’t ignore “external” events that are diverting attention from the focus of our presentation.

By “handling” these unexpected situations, we also demonstrate the ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. So, if we’re good at improvising, finding quick and effective solutions in these moments, we’ll turn a potentially negative situation into a positive one. The important thing is not to hide anything… Not to pretend nothing happened, because people might interpret that negatively; on the contrary, the more we share situations with our audience, the better we’ll connect, and possibly empathize. In the end, isn’t this our goal? Or not?

In short, as you may have understood, adequate preparation is what saves us from embarrassment. As I often repeat, “practice, practice, practice”; the more prepared we are for our event, the less unexpected occurrences will worry us. So, fearlessly, thanks to the power of improvisation!

For those who want to improve their public speaking skills, I definitely suggest getting involved with Toastmasters.

Happy presenting!
from Luzzpresents