Improvisation Theatre and Presentations

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When you look into creativity and innovation, you'll inevitably come across improvisation theatre. Since this isn't a topic I know a lot about, I recently read the classic "impro" by Keith Johnstone. This book (and topic) doesn't seem to have a lot to do with presentations, but bear with me for a moment.

The book has a chapter about narrative skills that improvisation artists need to develop, which reminded me a lot of storytelling. In this chapter, Keith Johnstone defines 3 rules:

  1. interrupt a routine
  2. keep the action onstage
  3. don't cancel the story

Do these rules also apply to storytelling in presentations? Let's see.

Interrupt a routine

This rule explains how to make an improvised story interesting. Actors will often end up improvising a routine situation - a stroll on the beach, running an errand, stepping into an elevator, etc. To make such a scene interesting, you need to do something unexpected.

In improvisation theatre, this can (and often will) be something bizarre or illogical. You can't really do that in a presentation (unless it really happened!) but you can introduce something unexpected, as long as it fits into the overall logic and message of your presentation. In fact, "unexpected" is the 'U' in the SUCCESs principles that Chip and Dan Heath come up with in their book Made to Stick, on how to help audiences to remember your message better.

So, try to interrupt the routine of your presentation and do something unexpected.

Keep the action onstage

The point of this rule is to remind actors to actually act out something on stage, not to end up describing a scene that happens elsewhere or happened in the past since such a description would be boring for the audience; there's nothing for them to see.

In a presentation, you also need to keep your audience in mind. Don't get carried away by talking about something that's interesting for you but only remotely relevant to them. Focus on things that your audience want or needs to know about right now.

Don't cancel the story

In the context of improvisation theatre, it's important for actors to accept where an improvised story is heading - even if they may feel uncomfortable about it. If a fellow actor mimes being sick and you give them medicine to cure the sickness, then the story is already over before it even began to develop. The scene lost everything that made it interesting - you cancelled the story.

In the context of a presentation, use this rule as a reminder not to "play it safe". Try out something new, don't always do the same routine. Try to think of new ways to present and explain your topic. Don't be afraid to take the occasional risk.


Admittedly, it's a bit of a stretch but you can apply Johnstone's 3 rules (or variations thereof) to presentations. The main difference, however, is that a good presentation is rarely improvised but carefully rehearsed. You've got it made when you can make it seem spontaneous and natural.

(Image Credits: "Improvisation part 1" by Alexandre Delbos, from Flickr)

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Creative Commons Licence "Improvisation Theatre and Presentations" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.