Improvisation as a craft

April 13, 2023

Cicero and cato maior disputing with scipio minor and caius laelius on old 2328eaI can’t remember the exact context but in a recent online session, I ended up in a brief discussion with someone on the nature of improvisation.  My interlocutor made the point that improvisation doesn’t just happen, it requires a lot of preparation, practice and perseverance to get to the point where something can appear to be spontaneous.  To come back to my last post we are talking about a craft, something that requires skills, knowledge, experience as well as a smidgen of natural talent.  This is also related to debates in aesthetics around and about the question of what constituted art.  One school of thought says it’s whatever someone who claims to be an artist produces, others of us argue that you first have to acquire the craft before you can break the rules.  Picasso is a really good example of this.  Serve your apprenticeship, then you have a right to challenge existing practice.

It’s the same in public speaking and I remain grateful to this day for the training I had from the age of 11 to 18 of having to stand up in class and speak for one side of a controversial proposition for seven minutes, without any notice of the subject or with the side I was on.  We did that every week and those of us who were any good at it ended up in the school debates society and had additional training in rhetoric.  That was when I fell in love with Cicero, although I have to admit only in translation.  Time is a wonderful enable constraint and I always have three of four endpoints so that I close early and appear natural.  You quickly sense time and when I was doing this competitively I could hit the five or seven-minute barrier within one or two seconds without really thinking about it.

One of the key things you learn is to test the audience early, you need to know what they will respond to and what they won’t.  Then you can make choices.  You may be there to inspire everyone, or your role may be to provoke to get people to think.  The former doesn’t involve compromise per se (although a lot of motivational speakers just produce carefully produced graphics and spout strings of platitudes)  but you are likely to use more stories and avoid novel concepts.  Unless that is they can be explained easily normally through a metaphor.  The children’s party story is still one of the best ways I have created to explain the complexity and it uses several metaphors in a story form.   In the latter case, you probably end up with a third of the audience inspired, a third curious but interested and a third indifferent and you need to be prepared for that.

A debate is a performance in which you are interacting with the opposing speakers and with the audience.  You have to think on your feet, but to do that you have to have a rich repository of memories and the ability to put things together in unexpected and novel ways to make your point.  That means you have to read a lot and in diverse fields, you need to talk about what you are learning with people from very different backgrounds above all you need to be curious and gather a few life experiences along the way.  Telling a story about you did something really stupid is a time-honoured technique to get an audience onside.  You need to develop and refine a set of stories and key phrases that you can fall back on at need.  Some of the skills here is to make connections.  I’ve compared over-enthusiastic proponents of Appreciative Inquiry with the song in the final scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  That came to me when I was been heckled at a large conference in Atlanta many years ago. More recently on Linkedin, I played on the word thicket to make a wider point:

To quote Juarrero a CAS is like ‘bramble bushes in a thicket’ but too many people, trying to use ‘it’s all entangled’ as an excuse for an ‘anything goes’ lack of discipline in CAS work, have failed to realise that thicket is also the collective noun for idiots. Mind you clickbait posters (please follow me I say profound things: you know the type) at least stimulate self-identification as thicket members through likes and so on.

When you are learning your craft then you use aids – record cards that can be hidden in one hand are a good one.  I might still use one these days especially if I am sitting in a conference listening to the other speakers.   Scrawling on A4 sheets while listening to the other speakers, and their audience reaction gets converted into a single card with maybe five or six words and that often gets rewritten five or six times in the ten minutes before I go on stage.  In my early days, I would have 12 or more cards that I would shuffle through in sequence, each with a heading and bullet points which would be arranged in threes or fives.  Overall there is no substitute for knowing your subject, and more widely many other subjects, and listening to your audience.  I’m not sure listening is the right word there, it’s more sensing and it is very difficult to do on Zoom but it’s not impossible.

In some audiences, you might need slides either because you are going to use an image or if English is a foreign language.   Images can be interesting.  In one case when I had a demand for slides  I set five with high-definition pictures of knots, one per slide, to shut them up and used those five slides to structure a talk with little or no presentation or notes.  In the TEDx talk, I linked to above the organisers appointed a coach and demanded slides in advance and a rehearsal.  I told them that was a bad idea and the rehearsal was much better than the live performance.  They were operating a template and assuming people would script their talk and rehearse it many times before presenting and for some people that may be the only way but only for those still in the early stages of acquiring their craft.

I’m going on too long.  The overall point is that craft remains key for spontaneity But, once I started I thought I’d lay out some of the principles and my own experience.  I’ve also bombed a few times and still do, generally that happens if I allow myself to go on autopilot.  A final key point here – remember the audience want you to do well so take some risks.

Of course, you could just use the corporate PowerPoint and a script …

The butterfly and music collage is cropped from an original by polytonejoe obtained from Pixabay   The opening image is from a medieval manuscript in the National Library of the Netherlands depicting Cicero and Cato Maior disputing with Scipio Minor and Caius Laelius on old age.  Use of high-resolution image secured by a donation to GetArchive

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