The Improv Is No Joke Podcast

Welcome to the Improv Is No Joke podcast hosted by Peter Margaritis, AKA The Accidental Accountant and author of the book 'Improve Is No Joke, Using Improvization to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life'. This podcast series is also available on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

Practice! Are We Talking About Practice?

It was 2002, and I can still hear former NBA Allen Iverson’s classic rant to the media, “We sitting in here – I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen: We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice.”  Allen didn’t want to practice because he felt that his past accomplishments (NBA Rookie of the Year in 1997, NBA All Star and League Most Valuable Player in 2001) gave him the privilege to just show up on game day and play.

The professionals that I follow, whether they are athletes, speakers, or leaders, do not follow the Allen Iverson methodology of practice because they do not want to be complacent and lose their precision and edge. According to dictionary.com, the definition of practice is “repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency.”

When I was Program Chair of Accounting at Franklin University, part of my job was to hire adjunct facility.  When a new faculty member with little to no previous teaching experience joined the staff, I would sit down and discuss the amount of preparation they would need to be successful in the classroom. I would describe this by saying, “we are paying you $2,500 for the course and since this is your first time teaching, that will equate to about a nickel per hour.”  The look of horror on their face was sobering.  They needed to know the material inside and out, as well as demonstrate the homework assignments and answer questions, even for an introductory course in accounting. In the classroom they needed to be perceived as the subject-matter-expert, and this was achieved not through lecture, but through conversations discussing the material. I had to convince the new faculty member that they spoke a foreign language, accounting, and their role was to develop a way to translate the accounting language to plain English.  Translating accounting into plain English takes a lot of practice.

If they were successful, then they would have the opportunity to teach the same course over and over again to gain that proficiency, which in turn reduced prep time and drove the salary per hour higher.  Practice!

People ask me a variety of questions about practicing techniques, such as, “should I picture the audience naked or should I practice in front of a mirror?” My answer is always NO.  I prefer not to have my audiences appear in my head naked or even partially dressed, that would be a big distraction and many times, not for the better.

As to practicing in front of a mirror, I always ask, “Is that how you will be presenting to your audience, in front of a mirror?”  Of course not.  You won’t be looking at yourself, you’ll be looking at your audience.  The premise is valid, to see yourself and the mannerisms you are projecting.  However, wouldn’t it be better if you practiced your presentation in front of a video camera and then watched yourself.  “YIKES!  You want me to watch myself?!  I hate watching myself on camera.” Really, you can’t watch yourself on camera, but you want everyone in your audience to watch you.  That is not congruent.

I understand the discomfort watching a recording of your presentation because I hated it, too.  I find that practicing in front of a camera and pretending that I am delivering my presentation to an audience is the second best way of becoming proficient.  Even better, record your performance while you are delivering it to a live audience.  Then watch it a couple of days later.  Either way, you will discover more areas that need improvement than you would with any other way of practicing.  The camera never lies.

Early in my career I practiced by reviewing my presentation slides while sitting at my desk, only hearing the words in my head. But that didn’t help me the full experience, and I don’t suggest that technique. Outside of a panel discussion, a vast majority of presentations are given standing up, and all require the use of “outside words,” words actually spoken outloud. My suggestion is to find a conference or training room that has a projector, plug in your slide deck and practice out loud.  This method helps you to hear the words and make a determination if there are better words to use or a different way of expressing your thoughts.

I am often asked how much practice is enough practice. Let me paint a picture: You are going deliver a 60-minute conference presentation. Just before you start, your computer freezes and you can’t use PowerPoint.  Can you give your presentation with 95% accuracy without the use of your slides?  When you can honestly say yes, then you are well rehearsed.

Here’s another scenerio: you are going to deliver a presentation to a board of directors No visual aids, no PowerPoint, just you. Can you give your talk without referring to your notes? Can you anticipate questions that will be asked, and are you able to answer them without reference to any notes?  Once again, when you can honestly say yes, then you are well rehearsed.

Another practice technique that I use is to visualize your entire presentation.  This method is similar to what sports figures do before they start their game.  They see themselves hitting the shot, fielding the ball, making the putt.  I want to visualize the entire room, stage, audience and envision me as I deliver my presentation.

I first utilized this technique back in 2013, when I gave a keynote address entitled Embrace Your Inner Superhero.  I began visualizing the presentation two weeks before the presentation date. I knew there would be about 150 attendees, the event would be held at a hotel conference room, and I had 75 minutes.  Having presented many times in similar settings, I knew how the room would be set up with round tables, a stage with a podium, and two large screens on either side of the stage.

So I would visualize my entire presentation from my introduction to me walking on to the stage to delivering my speech. It’s easy to visualize a perfect performance but that would not help me get past obstacles. In addition to visualizing the actual material, I visualized problems, lots of problems.  I saw me stumble over certain words, saw me stumble around the podium, even saw me taking a wrong step and falling off the stage. I would do this many times to begin to work out the kinks, all to ensure that I would not stumble on words or off the stage. The day of the presentation I had rehearsed all aspects of my keynote fifty or more times, and that does not include the number of hours of working with the material and vocalizing the speech.  I was ready. And there were no stumbles.

If you want to feel comfortable and be a better speaker, presenter, trainer, or facilitator you have to put the in the practice time.  By the way, no matter how busy you are, there is always time to practice, even if it is only 5 – 10 minutes.  You can always find a place to practice, whether it is in the shower, on your daily commute, or in your kitchen in front of your pets.  I admit that I do practice in front of my two Labrador retrievers a lot. I set up the video camera and present to my attentive audience using my “outside words.” Then I watch the video and critique my performance.  As Robert H. Schuller once said, “Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.”

Knowing Your Audience Better With Seinfeld

Demographics matter – when you understand the demographics of your audience you can better connect with them.  This is true in presenting financial information, developing new business, understanding internal and external customers, developing a professional network, and just about every kind of interaction with people.  It is inevitable that at some point you will deal with individuals who will not share your views, opinions, or approach. In those instances, you want to quickly assess a person’s communication and personality styles so you can adapt, improvise and keep the conversation moving forward.

There are a number of tests that can help us understand the personality and communication styles of others, including the popular D.I.S.C. model. This model contains four quadrants that represent parts of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In general, the left hemisphere is where logic and language reside, and the right hemisphere is where visual and creativity live. The four quadrants of the D.I.S.C. model are Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness. Influence and steadiness inhabit the right hemisphere while dominance and conscientiousness inhabit the left hemisphere. The ability to understanding the endearing qualities and the “at their worst” characteristics of each quadrant will help you to better connect with your audience, no matter the situation.

What Seinfeld Quadrant Are You?  

I’ll let you in on an interesting tidbit: successful sitcoms often include a character from each quadrant. It is a proven formula because the resulting friction tends to be funny.  Next time you watch a sitcom, take note of who is in what quadrant.  Seinfeld is a perfect example of this because each of the main characters exemplifies one of the D.I.S.C. quadrants.

Jerry: Dominance

These people are the drivers among us. They are competitive, decisive, independent, determined, and results-oriented. Control and admiration are critical. They also tend to be domineering, impatient, and poor listeners. Disorganization and wasting time drive them crazy. They don’t think you should bring your feelings into work. Some people in this category might be considered poor listeners because they often make a decision independent of input, and anyone else’s words are wasting precious oxygen. In fact, sometimes they are described as bullies.  People who fit this quadrant are CEOs, CFOs, Managing Partners, Mark Cuban and General Colin Powell.  Their endearing quality is their ability to get things done and take charge.  At their worst, they are very poor listeners.

Elaine: Influence

These are the cheerleader types who want to do what they love without being confused by the facts. They are optimistic, animated, persuasive, imaginative, enthusiastic, excellent communicators who enjoy telling stories. Often described as dreamers and very creative, they love having fun, being the center of attention, and receiving applause. However, they tend to talk too much, overwhelming others with information, and they have short attention spans.  Structure frustrates them. People who fit this quadrant are salespeople, speakers, and coaches, like Coach Boone in Remember The Titans movie. Their endearing quality is that they are good communicators and visionaries. At their worst, they tend to be disorganized and miss deadlines.

Kramer – Steadiness

These are the “can’t we all just get along and work together” people who want to be sure that everyone is okay. They are friendly, reliable, and supportive, like a Labrador Retriever. Patient and very diplomatic, they want everyone to like them and obsess if someone doesn’t. They are very concerned about personal relationships and harmony in the workplace but tend to be overly sensitive, conformist, and lacking in time boundaries. Rather than tell you what they think, they will say what you want to hear— which can be a dangerous trait. They don’t like to be rushed, don’t want to be alone, and avoid conflict when possible. People who fit this quadrant are human resources professionals, therapists, and clergy, like Pope Francis and Carl Jung. Their endearing quality is they understand diplomacy and demonstrate patience. At their worst, they tend to be indecisive, easily overwhelmed, and miss deadlines.

George – Conscientiousness

These are the thinkers. Efficient, thorough, accurate, and careful, they want to get it right every time. They are disciplined and love solving problems and researching issues. This group tends to be very critical and picky. They don’t like disorganization or surprises. People who fit this quadrant are accountants, engineers, actuaries, and the character Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory sitcom. Their endearing quality is that they love detail and research. At their worst, they are rigid, argumentative, and stubborn.

Understanding Your Sitcom Cast

Now that you understand the quadrants, you can begin to think about how to work and respond to any cast of characters attending your presentation. Friction will naturally arise because these are people with different outlooks. Still, you must tailor your presentation to meet a particular group communication style or to an audience that contains all types, like a company quarterly briefing or a board meeting. So, how do we connect and adapt to groups that are not like us?

  • To connect with those who are in the dominant quadrant, be direct, be specific, and offer multiple solutions. Remember, they are the decider. If you give them only one option, it’s more than likely going to fail, or it can become their idea instead of yours.
  • To connect with those who are in the influence quadrant, be enthusiastic and positive, and avoid details. Put things in a way that they can understand. Tell them a story versus spewing data at them. I have often heard accountants complain that the salespeople never get their expense reports in on time. My solution would be to point out to those salespeople that they file early for their tax refund so that the government doesn’t get to use their money any longer than necessary, so they should submit their expense report to the company for a similar reason.
  • To connect with those who are in the steadiness quadrant, engage in small talk, ask a lot of questions, and be informal, as if speaking with a friend. Just don’t let them suck away your time and extend your workday. You need to be respectful but firm about managing the conversation. Let them know you appreciate chatting, but it’s time to get down to business.
  • And for those who are in the conscientiousness quadrant, we need to communicate to people in the other three that we would like to focus on just the facts, please, so that we can get organized.

Having positive experiences with people from all backgrounds and perspectives starts with respect.  Respect comes from having a better understanding of who people are and what type of personality and communication style they possess.  Just like in improv, communication goes two ways, so the better we understand others—including their pet peeves and their hot buttons, their likes and dislikes—the better we will get along and can feed off of one another.  It always comes back to listening carefully to what people need and want, adapting readily to the situation, and taking your agenda off the table.

What Standup Comedy Teaches About Public Speaking

Becoming a great speaker and presenter takes effort and commitment. While there are several methods to improve your performance, the more practice you have in front of a real audience the more improvement you will make. For me, that meant performing stand-up comedy! In fact, my experiences in stand-up was one of many components that helped guide me to become a professional speaker.

Back in the late 80’s and through most of the 90’s I performed in comedy clubs, and I learned a lot about presenting to audiences.  Full disclosure: I was never a professional comedian who traveled the country and earned a living from making people laugh. However, standing in front of an intoxicated audience, telling jokes and hoping for laughs, and getting my fair share of crickets, was a great training ground for me. I suggest standup for any one who wants to become a better speaker, professional or not. Standup comedy helps you learn to read an audience, learn about practice and preparation, write tighter (i.e.,word economy), take risks, and look for stories that make you show the authentic you.

On my podcast, Improv Is No Joke, I have interviewed several professional comedians, and I asked each of them what stand-up comedy taught them about being a better public speaker.  Here are excerpts from my interviews with Dan Swartwout, Rik Roberts, and Judy Carter, all professional speakers and comedians.

Dan Swartwout is a professional touring comedian who is also an attorney and a member of the City of Powell (Ohio) City Council.  Here are some of the insights he shared with me:

  • The ability to read an audience, the ability to measure my performance based on the audience’s reactions and expectations, and I think a lot of those skills are translatable to many different types of performances and speaking engagements.”
  • “The key between a good speaker and a great speaker, is the great speaker and the good speaker are both prepared and ready, and on top of what it is they’re going to do. The great speaker, however, doesn’t appear to be over-prepared. It seems they’re just talking to you, even though they know exactly what they’re going to say, what they’re going to do, and how they’re going to do it to the audience.”
  • Let’s say you’re doing a presentation in front of accountants and you’re in the middle of your presentation and somebody drops a tray full of glasses, and the glasses shatter everywhere. I mean that’s something that, if it unnerved you, it could throw off your entire presentation. Keep connecting with your audience regardless of what might happen. Anytime you get in front of a group of people and talk there is always room for error.”

Rik Roberts provides clean comedy and creative keynote presentations. Rik also provides excellent comedy education in the School of Laughs, which includes a hilarious podcast of the same name, and comedy classes that will help anyone who wants to add more humor to their writing. Some of Ric’s thought include:

  • “Doing the comedy clubs was like going through all four years of college, and you get an education and you get that experience level from having faced every type of audience and tough crowd. Comedy College: just go out there and experience it, and take those lessons to the corporate speaking world.”
  • “Comedy is an art and sculpting is an art. So in comedy, if they gave us 30 pounds of words, we would try to use all 30 pounds. A sculptor would take those 30 pounds of clay and chisel away what doesn’t need to be there. Amateur comics don’t. They try to use all 30 pounds of words. But a professional will try to get that down to the bare minimum. An artist removes things so that you can see the beauty of the art, whereas a laborious person would just use everything to show you that they can do it.”
  • “When I deliver speeches, even though there’s plenty of humorous points in there and lots of funny stories and jokes, when I’m delivering the contents of the material (and it’s taken me awhile to learn this) I need to slow down and hear it as I’m saying it, as if it’s the first time I’m saying it, because that’s how the audience is receiving it.”

Judy Carter is a keynote speaker, an incredible author, and an effective coach. She is also retired from an impressive career as a stand-up comedian. Here are some excerpts from our interview:

  • “We all have this attitude that our life is absolute, random and chaotic, and in reading my book The Message of You people find that it’s not random, it’s not chaotic. That you actually have a message in your life and everyday you’re living that message, and you have something in your stories and what you’ve gone through that, if you share, can really help other people and create a ripple effect of inspiration.”
  • “What happened today, and find one moment in the day where something upset you, because we find that when things upset you they kind of hook into something that happened before, usually in your childhood, and from that we can glean a message. And we don’t have to wait for dramatic things to happen to us.  Extraordinary events are happening every day, and when we can capture that, it helps find exactly what is our legacy.”
  • What is therapy except knowledge about yourself? Understanding what motivates you, what rules you, because that’s power. I mean people go to therapy. But a lot of people want self-knowledge so they can use it to be an influencer in the world and understand, so they’re able to answer that question: what do I want to do?”

Great advice from very seasoned comedians on what they have learned from stand-up comedy. Here’s a challenge for you: put yourself out there and try stand-up.  Write seven jokes and go to an open mic night to try your material.  Before you venture out for the first time, I have a very important tip – do your homework. Find out how many minutes of mic time you will have, then practice your routine with a stopwatch. If you go over your time limit you probably will not get any more stage time at that venue for a while.  On performance day your goal is to take mental notes of everything yo observe while on and off stage. Watch and listen to the other amateurs, watch the audience reactions, stay in the moment.  After your set, write down your observations and come back better prepared the next week.

You can listen my full interviews with Dan, Ric and Judy on my podcast Improv Is No Joke found on iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play.  If you want to invest additional time in becoming funnier, check out Rik Roberts School of Laughs and Judy Carter’s The Comedy Bible.

Creating a Conversation Experience Presentation

You have finished writing your presentation and now it is time to practice.  I am frequently asked if presenters should memorize their entire presentation word-for-word or should just wing it, a.k.a improvise?  The answer depends on a two things: your personal preference with a scripted presentation and your level of experience as a presenter.

Personally, I am not someone who can memorize an entire presentation as written.  To me, reciting an entire presentation verbatim can make the presentation seem robotic, dull and uninspiring.  I don’t feel the same connection with an audience when I repeat the same words in exactly the same way every time. If listening to a robotic presentation wasn’t bad enough, some verbatim practitioners put every spoken word on their PowerPoint presentation. Please, do not do that! If you have to use PowerPoint, then limit the number of words on a slide to no more than 15, and use the slides as a memory jogger.

One of the pitfalls to memorizing your presentation is human error. When you make a mistake – and you will – it’s easy to get flustered.  You may forget a word, or many words, or even a paragraph.  Now your focus is on the mistake, not the audience or the content, and you may freak out a bit. When you start to panic and your nerves are jumping everywhere, there may be unexpected side effects, and a big one is the Dreaded Shallow Breather Syndrome (DSBS).  You can actually forget to breathe! When you fail to properly inhale and exhale your brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen. A lack of oxygen leads to memory loss, and that ultimately can derail your presentation.  If you experience DSBS just pause and take a few deep breaths. This should help you get back on track.  If not, then own it. Tell the audience you just had a “brain cloud,” look at your notes and carry on.

My suggestion is to avoid verbatim presentation altogether. Instead, list and remember the key points of your presentation. Make sure you can talk about each point in length and depth without referring to your notes or even your PowerPoint slide.  When practicing your presentation, anticipate the questions someone could ask about your topic and research the answers.  Anticipating questions will help you to create the conversation experience and raise your level as the subject matter expert.

Winging it is not a suggested technique for most presenters because you will come off unprepared, scatter-brained, and, sadly, just a rambling mess.  You may have all the information inside of your head but cannot access it in a logical way to get your point across. Most beginner and even some intermediate level presenters can’t successfully and consistently improvise their presentations because they have not delivered it enough times.

To achieve that level of improvisation you have to deliver the same presentation over and over, maybe fifty times or more. Improvisation is the ultimate way to create the conversation experience but it does not come easily.  I know first-hand how much work goes into mastering improvisation presentations.

When I first taught beginning accounting at the university level, I put in hundreds of hours to make sure I understood the material inside and out.  It wasn’t until the start of my fourth year teaching the same subject, that I was able to begin to use the improvisation technique.  I slowly instituted this method, but only for a couple of chapters that I was extremely comfortable in delivering.  After a couple more years, I was well-versed on the content, and I could anticipate and react to students questions. A conversation versus a lecture.  Toward the end of my college teaching career, I was the subject matter expert, and the improvisation technique was my standard for that class. Lucky for me it didn’t matter if a new edition textbook came out, beginning accounting has not changed very much over the years.

The goal of any presentation is to create a conversation with your audience versus a classroom lecture.  Think back to your days in school when you had to listen to an instructor robotically drone on about a subject. That memory alone should be enough inspiration for you to work hard in creating the conversation experience!  Creating that conversation experience will allow you to better connect with your audience, increase your standing as the subject matter expert, and improve the retention of the information you are delivering.

Five Components for a Solid Foundation to a Good Story

Watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks Do Schools Kill Creativity, and you will hear wonderful stories.  Sir Ken tells details of an interview he had with Gillian Lynne, the choreographer behind Cats and Phantom of the Opera. He shares how Lynne went from a child diagnosed with a learning disability to world renowned dancer and choreographer.1 It is a great piece of storytelling. In fact, this is the most watched TED Talks of all time with over 41 million views, so it does contain good stories.

There are five key elements to every good story: time, place, characters, conflict, and resolution.  Sir Ken’s telling of Gillian Lynne’s story uses all elements, so I will use it to demonstrate how each element works to further your engagement with the entire story, and as a result, the speaker.

  • Time and place:  This is your starting point, and in the Gillian Lynne story it was in the 1930s at her school.  That may seem vague, but it does establish a benchmark in our minds.
  • Characters:  In all good stories there needs to be a protagonist and an antagonist, or, as I like to refer to them, a hero and villain. The villain is the school administrator who believed that Gillian had a learning disorder. Our hero in this story is not Gillian, but the doctor her mother consulted to help Gillian do better in school.
  • Conflict: The school administrator believed that Gillian had a learning disorder because she couldn’t concentrate and was always fidgeting. Gillian’s mother wanted to help her daughter calm down so she could do better in school.
  • Resolution: Her mother explained to the doctor all of the issues that Gillian had in school: fidgeting, late homework, annoying people, lack of concentration. The doctor asked the mother to join him outside the room so they could observe Gillian’s behavior when she was left on her own.  As they walked out, the doctor turned on the radio so the child would feel a bit more comfortable.  The moment they left the room, she was up on her feet dancing, and she didn’t stop until they returned. The doctor told her mom that Gillian wasn’t sick and didn’t need his help. “Take her to a dance school,” he said. She is a dancer!

Good storytellers help the audience pay attention and retain information by embedding emotionally charged elements in the conflict and resolution elements of their stories. You know, to get the dopamine flowing and the Post-it® notes sticking to your brain.  In the resolution to Gillian’s story, when the doctor says she is not sick, she is a dancer – that is the emotion.  Most of us can relate to a similar situation that happened to us, our family or our friends.

As you were reading the conflict, were you thinking that Gillian had ADHD?  You probably did, I know I did.  When Sir Ken told this story, he said, “I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD was not invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition.” He delivered those lines in a very dry tone, which united the audience in laughter. Using humor can create another emotionally-charged moment that connects you and your audience.

Dissecting a story into its five components becomes easier the more you practice.  I suggest watching a few Ted Talk videos to see if you can identify the five components AND those emotionally-charged elements in each story told.  In a majority of Ted Talks, there are three main stories the presenter shares to support their point of view.  If you have trouble identifying the components while watching, find the transcript online and dissect there.

You can become a better storyteller by experiencing the stories all around you every day. Try to stop, listen, and then, dissect what you hear. Learn to identify the components quickly and then apply these techniques to crafting your own stories.

Once you are comfortable in applying this method, you can begin to craft the foundation to any story to help in the delivery of your message.  The more you use this method, the easier it will become in being a better storyteller and, ultimately, a better financial storyteller.

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  1. Gallo, Carmine, Talk Like TED, (St. Martins Griffin, New York) 56