Become An Improv-Master!

Leveraging Improvisational Techniques
in Toastmasters and Life

By Craig Harrison, DTM, PDG

Road closed. Forget your briefcase. LCD projector breaks. Flight cancelled. Drycleaners loses your lucky suit. Computer crashes. Co-workers caught in traffic. Road flooded. Power outage. Missing page of the instruction manual. Run out of gas. Spoiled mayonnaise. Lose your car keys. Picnic rained out.

Despite our best laid plans, practice and preparations, much of what we do in Toastmasters — and in life — is improvised! Hence the value of Table Topics, where we think on our feet, formulate responses in the moment, and then respond cogently in an unrehearsed manner.

The ability to improvise in life helps us in job interviews and business meetings, at networking events and town hall meetings, as well as any time we encounter strangers, get lost or receive unexpected phone calls.

Every time a flight is delayed, a key employee calls in sick, a road is closed, we tear a piece of clothing irreparably while dressing, a piece of equipment fails or the boss changes his or her mind, we improvise! And if we don’t, we often suffer the consequences. Our ability to improvise…what a valuable skill to possess!

And in the process of any improvising, we develop flexibility, sharpen problem-solving abilities, heighten self-awareness of skills and capabilities, develop our creativity, foster collaborative skills, deepen trust with others and more.

IMPROV defined:
An act of spontaneous invention;
That which is improvised. Impromptu.
Theatrical techniques borne of the stage.

Improv Foments Discovery

Did you realize improvisation often leads to innovation and invention, new partnerships, improved processes and other exciting outcomes in our work, play and family life?

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Tactics for Tackling Table Topics

Table Topics can be the most daunting part of the Toastmasters experience, and it can also be the most exhilarating! The key is how you set the table.

Even without knowing in advance the topic you will be asked to speak about, you can prepare your mind and body to carry the day. Here are some strategies for how to win Best Table Topic of your next club meeting or contest.

Pay Attention

Table Topics are about being “in the moment” so it’s important to mentally prepare yourself to respond. Are you present when you’re about to participate in Table Topics? Or, are you pre-occupied? You want to be 100% attentive to the meeting or contest. What is happening in the room? What has been said already? What is the shared experience you are part of? Has a theme emerged?

Concentrate on Table Topics, not what you did an hour ago or will do an hour from now. Engage yourself with others and the event. Be a part of it. Feel its pulse. After all, you are about to speak to everyone in the room about something, so the sooner you embrace the partnership, the better you’ll be able to connect with your audience when you speak. You can reference things previously said or done that day and win points for relevancy. Just like comedians do during their sets, why not “call back” to something interesting that happened earlier in the meeting?

Be Current

Regardless of what the topic is that you’re asked to speak about, you can make it current by linking it to current events. Not just current events occurring in the club that day or night, but also what’s happening in your community that week or month, or even in your country at that time. What’s trending? That’s topical! Fresh responses that link to current events have a special aliveness. Whether you are referencing the recent or upcoming Olympics, the most recent holiday, timely human interest stories of local import or a scientific breakthrough by a local company, each is a shared experience with your audience that will resonate with them. The currency of events has its own buzz of electricity. Tap that power source!

Other examples:

  • Was the traffic brutal on the way to the meeting?
  • Was the weather particularly challenging that day?
  • Is the noise of the construction drilling outside the window vexing?
  • Was the fire alarm repeatedly misfiring?

All are grist for use as part of your topic response.

Following First Instincts

So often our first instinct when we hear the topic is the one we should act on. The instinct gives us a head start. Whether our reaction to the given topic is a “gut” reaction deep in our belly, or our mind paints an initial image conjured by the topic itself, your reaction suggests there is a point of view, a line of reasoning or a curiosity to be indulged. Go with it!

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When You’re the Topicsmaster…

Contrary to popular belief, the best part about serving as Topic Master isn’t immunity from being called to answer a Table Topic!

As Topic Master, you are entrusted with a key part of each meeting. Your Topics reinforce the meeting theme, ensure that members without a previously assigned role get to speak, and provide drama, suspense and surprise to your meeting. It’s both a responsibility and a privilege.

Here are some creative ideas for the next time you lead Table Topics.

Can You Sell It? George Marshall of Star Search Toastmasters (Fremont California) asks respondents “What is it?” as they reach into his grab bag a pull out obscure objects: grandma’s old kitchen implements, odd garage shop tools or other miscellaneous items. Whether respondents give truthful or fanciful explanations it’s all good fun! A variation on this approach: asks respondent to “sell” their club the item.

Can You Define It? At Rossmoor Toastmasters in Walnut Creek California participants are shown an obscure word from the dictionary and asked to define it. Truthful or not, a compelling explanation always wins. How would you define the words Eccedentesiast, Interfenestration or Sgiomlaireached? (Now reveal the true meaning after each response.)

Presenting the Past: Use an old newspaper, magazine or Toastmaster magazine from 40-50 years ago, issue each respondent a headline. Using their imagination, respondents create a plausible story to match.

Interpretations: When he’s Topic Master, Doug Mills of Dimond Toastmasters (Anchorage Alaska) has shown children’s drawings and asked respondents to interpret and tell a story about each.

The Progressive Story: The Topic Master starts the story and ends it. In between, each member is also expected to contribute exactly one sentence. Listening intently, participants co-create a story a line at a time, in 1-2 minutes.

— Craig Harrison DTM, PDG

NOTE: This sidebar and the related article Tips for Tackling Table Topics, appeared in the June, 2014 edition of Toastmaster.

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What’s Your Club Culture? Learn how to take the pulse of your club

A culture of caring, service and integrity is critical to success.
Build it and they will come.

Craig's Cover Story on Culture, 4/14 in Toastmaster magazine

Craig’s April 2014 cover story on the importance of club culture in Toastmasters clubs.

Many factors influence a club’s success: membership numbers, renewal rates and education achievements, for example. But an intangible and often overlooked factor may be the most essential contributor to a club’s long-term success—its culture!

Culture, in this case, refers to the club’s environment—that blend of location, members, values, customs and practices. The easiest way to describe it is to say, “It is the way we do things around here.” Culture can be easier felt than measured, yet it’s what causes members to remain active in their club. It’s the magnet that attracts guests to come back and join. Isn’t it time to take the pulse of your club’s culture?

The Fun Factor

People do business with those they know, like and trust. There is a similar formula for popular clubs. Friendly and inviting clubs that provide an enjoyable experience and generate positive energy attract new members. Long ago, Toastmasters founder Ralph C. Smedley asserted that people “learn in moments of enjoyment.” How fun is your club? Just because members have fun doesn’t mean they aren’t serious about improving their communication and leadership skills. When learning is fun, achievement soars. Club meetings and member experiences should be both fun and fruitful.

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Hearing Voices – Techniques to Enhance Your Vocal Variety

Use Characters, Personas, Puppets and Animal Sounds to Boost Your Vocal Variety

Everyone agrees more vocal variety is preferable. But how does one add more vocal variety? Especially in the Competent Communication manual assignment #6, we are implored to pick a topic, write and deliver a speech to showcase vocal variety. Yet so often I hear speeches whose topics don’t lend themselves to variation in tone and pitch, cadence, volume, inflection and intonation. Nor does their delivery include much vocal variety. This article is a call to arms to invoke more vocal variety — in all speeches.

Yet some Toastmasters around the world are finding creative ways to employ more vocal variety. Many of them do so through Telling a story. In their stories they exaggerate each character’s voice. One character may have a high and squeaky voice while their protagonist’s voice might be low and sinister.  By first creating different physical characteristics — posture and presence — for each character, they find the corresponding voices emanate from the physical manifestations of their characters. It is not only easier to generate appropriate voices, but easier to re-inhabit them during scenes with back and forth dialog.

Talking With Your Hands

Some members have given puppet shows using finger puppets or hand puppets where each one not only looks but also sounds different, enhancing vocal variety. Puppets feature different styles of speaking, accents and use different registers to distinguish themselves from each other and help the story along.

A Family of Sounds

A great vehicle for showcasing vocal variety is to give a speech describing an inter-generational family dinner where kids, parents and grandparents interact. Think of a family reunion, Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner or holiday BBQ. Kids’ voices are usually higher; grandparents may speak more deliberately or with a stronger accent, perhaps from the old country. We all have interesting characters in our families. Part of what makes them interesting is their manner of speaking: their vocal stylings, vocabulary and unique way of expressing themselves.

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What do you do? (Tag Lines Tell the Tale!)

“What do you do?”

In our society this is the first question we’re asked, after “What is your name?”

The real question is: “How do you answer this question?”

Do you tell people your title: clerk, programmer, driver, teacher, sales rep or receptionist — or do you answer more descriptively?

Too many people respond to this question with a bland, unimaginative job title or standard industry classification (SIC) code.


To set yourself apart from the crowd, cast your profession in its most ennobling light and focus on the benefits of your work as they accrue to others!

Consider Ruth Blumert Walker,  longtime receptionist for the Oakland, California law firm of Donahue, Gallagher, Woods and Wood, who has since retired. When asked her occupation, Walker proudly proclaimed to all who asked: “I’m the Director of First Impressions.”  Indeed she was!

Walker knew that people dreaded going to a law firm. They usually arrived due to a problem, and their visit was costly to boot. Walker understood the key role she played in their experience, and her moniker showcased the power she possessed to make a difference.

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Your Room Has Room for Improvement: Feng Shui Your Meeting Room for Optimal Success!

How the ancient science of Feng Shui
helps clubs optimize meeting rooms for success

Whether your club meets in a high rise or a basement, a barn or a barracks, you have the ability to alter key variables to make the experience more inviting, nurturing, welcoming and simultaneously reinforce the goals of your club. Did you know your meeting room has room for improvement?

Many variables contribute to an effective speech: the quality of your material, the amount you practice, the volume of your voice, whether you dress for success, and other variables. Yet little attention is paid to the environment in which you give your speeches.

“Before a speaker utters a word, the room is already making a statement!” declares Katie Weber, an Austin Texas publisher of The Red Lotus Letter Feng Shui E-zine for wealth. Weber, Living Space columnist for Tribune Media Services, continues, “What statement is the room making? Is it saying it’s old or tired? Only when the meeting room is optimized, is your message optimized!” Here, the ancient discipline of Feng Shui offers insights.

Sway your Audiences with positive Feng Shui

“Every aspect of the built environment has an impact on us: Light, sound, smells, and visual stimuli can influence our energy level and responses” states professional speaker Linda Lenore, ASID, Feng Shui Master and founder, Green Chi Designs ( in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lenore, a Certified Green Building Professional, continues: “The Modern sciences of environmental behavioral research and eco-psychology, along with ancient wisdoms of Feng Shui, each recognize the impact our environment has upon our happiness, productivity and feelings of well–being.”

Feng Shui (pronounced fung-shway), is the ancient Chinese art and science of placement. Its name, in Chinese, refers to the two types energies, wind (feng) and water (shui), that shape our world. Feng Shui focuses on energy and its flow, and how to achieve harmony and balance in one’s environment. Continue reading

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Mackay’s Life Lessons Help People Worldwide Sell Their Ideas! — Craig’s Harvey Mackay Interview

Harvey Mackay’s life is an ode to achievement. A successful businessman, New York Times best-selling author, world renowned speaker and civic leader, his impact is global. With the release of his latest books, The Mackay MBA of Selling in the Real World, and Use Your Head To Get Your Foot In The Door — Job Search Secrets No One Else Will Tell You, Toastmasters’ Craig Harrison sat down with the mercurial master of influence for a wide-ranging interview to learn how his secrets of success can help us all succeed


“Every day of your life you are selling ideas. Whether you’re talking to one person or delivering a keynote there is no difference.”

Confidence is essential. Mackay continues: “Salespeople must have self-assurance to be successful, coupled with being able to exhibit composure under pressure.”

Harvey knows. He is chairman of MackayMitchell Envelope Company, a $100 million company he founded at age 26. Today they employ 500 employees and manufacture 25 million envelopes a day.

I asked Mackay about common mistakes he sees in today’s salespeople: “If you want to triple your success ratio, you have to triple your failure rate.”


Regarding the common mistakes Mackay sees today’s leaders making: “Young people make mistakes by having a philosophy that they want to start at the top and work their way up. For budding leaders, you can’t have followers without understanding leadership. And you can’t be a good leader without being a good listener.”

As for leaders at any level: “Good leaders inspire others with confidence in them. Great leaders inspire them with confidence in themselves.”

Regarding veteran leaders’ biggest mistakes, Mackay states: “When they take over a new company or department, they do too much…too soon…too fast. Their biggest mistake: that they do not realize that they must first spend three-six months gaining the confidence of the people they are leading.”


Harvey is adamant that every successful person has written goals that guided them: “You must have goals and they must be written down. Pale ink is better than the most retentive memory, which means your short-term and long-range goals must be written down.”

“My closest friend, (American College Football Hall of Fame coach) Lou Holtz, told me when he was a kid, he had 107 goals in life: he wanted to be on The Late Show with Johnny Carson, win the National Championship in college football, meet the Pope, jump out of an airplane, and many more goals. He wrote them all down. What do you think happened when he accomplished all these goals? He set new ones! He wrote down another list. Your Toastmasters goals must be in writing.”

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TED Talks…And the World Listens!

Where the Power of Story Meets the Power of the Big Idea!

The Annual TED conference demonstrates the ultimate melding of communication and leadership.

Ted Talks cover story in Nov 2011 Toastmaster magazine

Ted Meets Toastmasters! Ted Talks - Where the power of story meets the Big Idea!

Imagine being granted 18 minutes to deliver the speech of your life to an
audience of brilliant and influence wielding visionaries — people who can turn your “big idea” into a new company, public policy or even a worldwide movement. Welcome to TED — which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. This is where the power of story meets the power of the big idea.

The interdisciplinary presentations given at these pricey annual conferences, where attendance is by invitation or application, are known as TED Talks. The time limit on TED presentations is 18 minutes, and emphasis is placed on dynamic content and innovative ideas.

TED is the ultimate melding of communication and leadership. TED Talkers persuasively present their most compelling ideas to enlist the support and input of a diverse, distinguished audience, full of company founders, culture-crafters and other movers and shakers.

“TED is where the cool kids hang out,” says Vickie Sullivan, founder of Sullivan Speaker Services, Inc., in Tempe, Arizona. Continue reading

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How to Craft A Presentation, TED-style

How to give a TED Talk

How to give a TED Talk

Jessica Mah, curator of a TEDx conference last year in Berkeley, California, offers tips for applicants seeking to deliver a TED Talk.

  • Begin with a thought-provoking idea to set a standard for the rest of your talk. For example: Jamie Oliver started his TED Talk by saying, “Sadly, in the next 18 minutes, four Americans that are alive, will be dead.”
  • Share intimate stories.
  • Back up your stories with visuals.
  • Don’t lecture people — this is not a class.
  • Be willing to take risks in your presentation.
  • Commit to at least two in-person rehearsals. Some TED speakers have spent over 15 hours preparing for a 15-minute talk. Put in the time to be excellent.
  • Don’t recycle talks. People will know, and your talk won’t be TED-website worthy.
  • End with a takeaway. How does this relate to “doing the unprecedented” or your event’s theme?

Read Craig’s article “TED Talks and the World Listens”

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