How to practice improvised speeches for lazy folk, part 1

In Toastmasters, we dedicate part of each meeting to Table Topics, an improvised question and answer portion related to a specific theme. A Table Topic master asks a volunteer one in a series of questions, who, in turn, responds with a 1-2 minute mini-improvised presentation.

I volunteer for these fairly often, as I find my improvisational ability quiet dismal, and enjoy the opportunity to utter nonsense in front of an audience.

In fact, once I begin to improvise, I feel as much in control as if I were engaging a woman in conversation for the first time in life. My body language may glitter in Greek heroism, but the words leave a strange aftertaste.

In a prepared speech, I experience waves of anxiety in the days leading to a presentation, and especially in the preceding hour. As soon as I take the stage, however, it’s as if I become possessed, unclear whether it’s even myself delivering the speech. In this trance, there is no anxiety, nor consciousness. It’s over before I even realize it.

The improvised presentation is entirely opposite. I feel no pressure in anticipation of a table-topic session, at ease and in control as I approach the stage, and fully comfortable up to the moment the question is announced. And suddenly, all the anxiety I may have otherwise avoided, grips me during those two minutes like a mad typhoon.

But improvisation is not about being in control. Rather, it’s about the willingness to submit to freedom. Yet, somehow, the freedom I imagine in improvised Jazz, doesn’t lend itself to as forgiving of a form in oral prose.

Truth be told, in those two minutes, I would sooner remain as silent as a Renaissance sculpture, full of unpronounced wisdom.

Alas, thou must transcend thy limits.

Improvisation belongs to a list of those skills to which you can dedicate mere minutes on a daily basis to attain gradual improvement. At two minutes per day, you will have practiced 365 improvisations in a year. At 2X minutes/day, 365X improvisations. That’s a lot for even a small X. If you improve at 1% per day, in 70 days, you will have attained a 100% improvement (with compound interest), and 3000% in less than a year. That’s going from incompetence to mastery in a handful of minutes per day.

Now, I realize that to practice one daily improvisation even, you need to dedicate additional energy and head space to the procedure - one, to generate an ideally random question (for an authentic improvisation), two, to properly track time, three, to record your sessions, four, to track your progress. These ceremonies, especially the time tracking and recording, are important in simulating the ‘performance effect’ of a live delivery.

The above bookkeeping takes additional time and energy, and suddenly, the effort sounds less provocative than the initial two-minute estimate. To eliminate this taxation for lazy people as myself, I devised a shell script to carry out the following tasks in one autonomous operation:

  1. Initiate an audio recording
  2. Pick a random question from a list of 365 table topics.
  3. Display the question in a huge full-screen slide.
  4. Display indicators at 60, 90, and 120-second marks (in accordance with Toastmaster guidelines).
  5. At 2 minutes, display a warning to approach a finale.
  6. Upon closing the slide (via ‘q’ keystroke in my rendition), terminate the recording. (The entire process will otherwise stop in 5 minutes).
  7. Name the audio file appropriately, with the date and timestamp.
  8. Append the session metadata (audio file and the corresponding question) to a text file for tracking progress and revisiting older recordings.

There’s nothing challenging about each of the above operations, but if I had to perform them manually, after enough sessions, I would simply abandon the pursuit. Now, one improvised session lasts only as long as it takes me to speak, no additional bookkeeping time. If, and when I desire, I can return to specific recordings to analyze my progress by referencing the generated index file.

Presently, the script is entirely inflexible, suited precisely for my Table Topic procedure. I will shortly parameterize it for a custom question list, custom question display method, custom time indicators, index file location, etc. Once parameterized, I will upload it to a repository and produce a second part of this post.

To be continued…