A lot of people find meetings, especially with new people, awkward and anxiety inducing. There are many different reasons for this, of course. The one I hear most often from clients I work with in my coaching work is that the pressure gets to them. The meeting might be high stakes, perhaps with an important client or someone more senior than them in the business. This can make them freeze up. Overcome with imposter syndrome, they become tongue tied. They know they should say something, but what? ‘If only I were better at thinking on our feet,’ they tell me. Luckily, my world of improvisation offers some tools to help here. Improvisers go on stage and try to make an audience laugh, with no script whatsoever. It’s hard to think of many more terrifying prospects! So, how do they do it effectively and with confidence? Here, I will share five of their techniques so that you might employ them off-stage when you are next in the spotlight.
It’s OK to be obvious…
The reason many people feel blocked in meetings is that they think that when they speak it has to be fireworks. They feel the need to be original, interesting, clever, and witty. It’s not like they can’t think of anything to say, it’s just that when they do, they filter it through these criteria. Their inner critic soon gets the better of them, and so they say nothing. To overcome this problem on stage, improvisers apply the rule: be obvious. In other words, rather than waiting to think of the best thing they could say before they speak, they let themselves say whatever is obvious to them at that moment. Now, you might think this makes everything they say incredibly mundane. But they swiftly discover that what is obvious to them is not obvious to everyone else. Suddenly then, they seem interesting with no effort at all!
What does this look like off-stage? Well, say you come into a meeting room, ask yourself: what’s obvious to me at this moment? Clearly, you rule out things that are rude. You don’t say, ‘Hey Jude, you look a lot fatter in real life!’ But there are hundreds of other obvious things you could say to get the conversation going. Anything from, ‘I like your watch.’ To, ‘I’ve given up drinking coffee.’ To, ‘The view is great up here.’ Now, are comments like these likely to get you a promotion? Of course not. But what they do for you is get the conversation going. Meetings and conversations are basically exchanges of energy, and this is you lighting the fire. As legendary improv coach Jill Bernard says, ‘If you’re wondering whose turn it is to speak, it’s yours!’ Everyone else in the meeting will thank you for it. And, if you’re nervous, there is nothing like saying something early to relax you into things.
When you let yourself be obvious, you’ll find you get conversations started and come across as conversationally fluent. But what do you do next? You need to trust that you have everything you need to keep the conversation going. One of the biggest things improvisers learn in their training is that you don’t need to know how your sentence will end in order to start it. Your brain is amazing: it will provide the answer if you let it. Tina Fey put it like this, ‘Just say yes and you’ll figure it out afterwards.’ It is by making the choice to speak that we find our voice, not by knowing the answer. To paraphrase the great Martin Luther King Jr, you don’t have to see the whole staircase, just the first step.
To make things easier for you, put all the focus on the other person. Improvisation, in a nutshell, is not about having a million funny or clever things to say. It is not about being ‘quick.’ It is simply listening and responding to the last thing your scene partner says. We get nervous when we get stuck in our head focussing on ourselves, so focus instead on listening. A final tip: try a ‘yes, and’ style response: accept and build off the last idea shared by your ‘scene’ partner. It keeps you connected to them, makes them feel heard, and takes the pressure off you.
Improvisers talk a lot about status, but we understand it a bit differently to how you might at the moment. Status is not just where you are on a professional hierarchy, it is something you play. Status is a behaviour, something we do. We often experience imposter syndrome in meetings because the person we are with comes across as high status: they take up a lot of space with their body, they speak slowly and deeply, they speak first. This can be pretty intimidating until you understand that status is a set of behaviours that you yourself can ape. If someone is high status, you match up your non-verbals to their non-verbals. You’ll see it transforms how they interact with you. Now, a lot of people are uncomfortable with playing high-status because they conflate it with being aggressive and dominant. But this needn’t be the case: you can play high status with an empathetic and humble mindset. Just think of leaders like Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu. If you want to increase your presence, ‘happy high status’ is the way to go.
When you make a choice to speak up, really commit to the choice. In the context of a meeting, this is about not second guessing yourself. What does this mean in practice? Be loud and proud; don’t ask permission to speak; don’t apologise for your contribution when you make it; politely ask people who interrupt you to let you finish; and avoid qualifiers that undermine the credibility of what you say. (For example, avoiding speaking like this: ‘This is just a suggestion, and I might be wrong. But is there something perhaps we aren’t quite getting at? Which I suppose is that maybe the presentation could just be polished up a bit?’)
Remember, it’s not all on you
Finally, in an improvisation show, just as in a meeting, the pressure isn’t on one person to solve everything or bring ‘the big idea.’ It’s a team effort. You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room all the time! The metaphor we use to represent this concept is the following: we are trying to build a cathedral on stage: a beautiful, magnificent show. But we do this by bringing one brick at a time. Our focus is on gradually adding small bits of information together as we move, rather than providing the whole answer all at once. The emphasis is on the gradual development of the scene, rather than on giant leaps of the imagination. Suddenly improvisation-and successful meetings-are not as intimidating as they seem. While each brick alone is unimpressive, when all these bricks are connected in collaboration with others, they can become brilliant. So, bring your brick!
Max Dickins is author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work which is out now. He is co-director of improvisation training company Hoopla! Hoopla run improv classes, shows and corporate training.