Nov. 17, 2021

How to Best Use Improv to Spice Up Your Presentations - BM298

Do you want to know how to use improv to spice up your presentations?
Listen as Izzy Gesell shares highlights from his extensive expertise to fully understand the dos and don'ts of improvisation.

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Do you want to know how to use improv to add some spice and seasoning to your presentations?

Listen as Izzy Gesell, the organizational alchemist, shares highlights and magic from his extensive expertise to better understand the dos and don'ts of improvisation.

In this week's powerful episode "How to Best Use Improv to Spice Up Your Presentations" you will discover...

  • What exactly is improv and how you can use it to your benefit
  • How using improv can boost your presentation confidence
  • The common mistakes to avoid 
  • And a whole lot more...

Get more gems from Izzy and other guest experts, when you become a Book Marketing Mentors Premium Member today!


Susan Friedmann:         Welcome to Book Marketing Mentors, the weekly podcast where you learn proven strategies, tools, ideas, and tips from the masters. Every week, I introduce you to a marketing master who will share their expertise to help you market and sell more books. Today, my special guest is known as an organizational alchemist. Izzy Gesell helps individuals and organizations transform their thinking from commonplace to extraordinary.

                                    He's skilled at delivering a meaningful material in a way that makes participants enjoy their time with him. He's the author of Playing Along: Group Learning Activities Borrowed From Improvisation Theater. A dear friend and colleague, Izzy, what an absolute pleasure it is to welcome you to the show and thank you for being this week's guest expert and mentor.

Izzy Gesell:                    Oh, you're welcome, Susan. It's great to be here. And we have been connected for a long time.

Susan Friedmann:         Yes, I know. So many years.

Izzy Gesell:                    Yeah. And those were the formative years of my career and my insights, and some good time shared.

Susan Friedmann:         Very much so. Well, I am fascinated by the term organizational alchemist. Talk to us about that.

Izzy Gesell:                    Yeah. I think it evolved for me because I tried to encapsulate and I know that the authors get asked the question, "Well, what do you do? Who's your market? What's your advantage?" And because I worked with a lot of different people and organizations, I had to look at what's the core, the essence of what I do that I can describe that covers a wide range of people and even topics. And I came across this word alchemy, which I didn't know what it was other than you see it in movies. Sometimes you read about it and it's always some kind of a magician who transforms lead into gold.

                                    I thought, "Well, that's not so relevant." I looked up the definition of alchemy and the definition is the transformation of something ordinary into something special. And that's where I got the understanding from feedback of my work that people think it's special and lives are special. And I know from my own instances, the work that I did around humor and improv has made my life special. So that's really what it is, taking something ordinary and making it special somehow. 

Susan Friedmann:         I love that. Improv is something that you specialized in for years. I mean, that's how I know you, and I was like, okay, so that's a subject that I've yet to cover until today, with our authors. And let's find out exactly what is improv, so we're all singing out of the same hymn book.

Izzy Gesell:                    What I would say is that the foundational concept that I work with is the belief that the skills that make theater people successful are available to us non-theatrical people. So it's not so much about becoming an improviser in the traditional sense, but what I learned when I took him improv was that there were trainings, there's rehearsals, there's structures. The rehearsals and the get-togethers are not to practice the outcome of the game, but to practice the process.

                                    And that's when I began to see that what we're really talking about what I now call applied improv. We take the principles and practices that you would go through if you're taking improv classes at your local theater, and you say, "Okay, I'm not in the theater. How can I use this in my relationship? How can I use this in my creative output? How can I use it to think quickly on my feet?"

                                    So what improv is is a structured situation where you have a goal, but you're not tied to one particular path to that goal. And I think that's the skill more and more these days when people say they need to pivot, they need to be able to think on their feet, they need to find new ways of solving problems, new solutions. That's what improv is at its core, we just take it out of the entertainment area and put it into real life.

Susan Friedmann:         In real life, yes. You said relationships, and you mentioned a few more other things, but how would our authors take this skill and use it to their benefit?

Izzy Gesell:                    Well, remember, it's a practice. So it does take some time. What we're looking for, the benefit is, and I'll say that this has helped me in my life, so I'm speaking from what I in hindsight realize has been helpful. And again, this is the core of most of my work with organizations.

                                    I've titrated down the three basic skills of improv, why they're successful. That's because of presence. Improvisers are able to stay in the moment. The past is no longer relevant, the future is unknown, so the only time they have to act is now. The second quality, and there are three, is improvisers understand the difference between acceptance and agreement.

                                    And that it means they deal with reality as it is rather than as they'd like it to be. And this is a great skill for us to have, because when things don't go the way we plan or our assumptions are not played out the way we want them to, many of us and I could include myself, spend a lot of time trying to change the other person, or try to get it to the outcome.

                                    Improvisers say, "Okay, this is what I got." In improv talk, they accept the offer. And the way they do that is with what is probably the most well-known improv technique called Yes, and. Yes, and means yeah, this is what you're saying. And let me give you my opinion, which is very different than yes, but, which is a zero-sum game.

                                    So the third quality... So the first is presence. The second is acceptance. And the third quality is trust. Improvisers trust process, because they don't know the exact outcome. So they have a confidence in themselves and for writers, and for coaches and people trying to market their work, you don't know necessarily how everything is going to turn out. You just have to have confidence, A, that you are correct in your goals and your missions, and B, you're not tied to one particular outcome.

                                    So you have spontaneity, and that's why you can actually practice spontaneity using improv techniques.

Susan Friedmann:         I think that was one of the most life-changing programs that I ever did, was literally taking improv classes and realizing how that helped me in not only things like these interviews, but my training programs, that I could go off-script and it would be okay, I would survive, or if something happened that was unexpected, like the fire alarm going out, or the bulb in the projector that went out.

                                    I mean, there are those kinds of things that happen that you've got to work around them. So would you agree this is when you might utilize some improv skills?

Izzy Gesell:                    Yeah. Every day, from something large like you're in an interview and they said, "Well, you're going to be here for 45 minutes," and then you get in there and they say, "Well, the head of the company's coming in and you're only going to have 20 minutes," and you've rehearsed a 45-minute presentation and you go, "Oh my goodness, what am I going to do? I'm going to have to cut out 20 minutes."

                                    No, you make a fully complete 20-minute presentation because you can improvise or you even small things, traffic jams, there's an accident on the way to work. You're picking up your kids and there's a hole in the street. Improv is a reaction to a real situation without being stuck to one particular outcome. So I'm glad to hear you say that it affected you. I would be curious if you can say a little bit more about how did it change your internal view? So it certainly helped you be more spontaneous, but what did that do for your confidence, for example?

Susan Friedmann:         And that's an interesting question, but it really made me feel, as you say, more confident that it's okay if I go off-script. I think it added more a humanness to it, an authenticity. You use the word trust, but I also think there's an authenticity in improv that is very helpful just in life in general, which I think is what you alluded to earlier on.

Izzy Gesell:                    Yes. And the authenticity comes from our humanity in being imperfect, as I mentioned and as you mentioned, life is imperfect. So if we try to make believe that bad things don't happen or unexpected things don't happen and we try to make them good, that's not the way life works.

                                    It's our vulnerability that people relate to. And when we're watching improv and the folks listening, remind yourself when you've watched improv maybe on TV with Whose Line Is It Anyway?, or in the theater, or you've played improv games. When you're watching someone else play, you are emotionally involved with them. You're playing along with the game, and you're connected to how well they do. You can put yourself in that position, meaning that improv builds empathy and empathy is a very powerful connection between people, whether you're selling something, whether you're buying something, or just relating to someone. 

Susan Friedmann:         The technique that you gave us, the yes, and, I love that technique. And I always have to remember, it's not yes, but. When I feel the word yes coming out of my mouth and I'm going to say but, but I have to remember to change it to the and, but that also takes practice.

Izzy Gesell:                    It is a practice. Why shouldn't it be a practice? Doctors practice, golfers practice. Dentists practice. The word practice is not a demeaning thing. It means a honing of skillset and an updating of the understanding and that's how you get confidence. The more you do it, the more you realize, "I never know what's going to happen, but I know that I'll be able to deal with what happens."

                                    And this trust in self and trust in other people really is where the authenticity comes from. It's not about being perfect, it's about being real.

Susan Friedmann:         There's also a thought that there's humor involved in improv. I always think of it in terms of a humorous situation, but it isn't always. Is that correct? There are different types of improv?

Izzy Gesell:                    There is a misconception that improv comedy is really the same thing. And the misperception is the belief that comedy is the goal in improv. And really comedy is the result, the outcome. The reason it's funny is because we're surprised. And humor, most humor when we laugh at something, there's some level of surprise in there.

                                    So trying to be funny in improv is very difficult and is not successful, especially because you're dealing with other people and you may think something is funny or you're trying to make a particular joke, and if the other person doesn't get it or understand it, you fall flat. The humor that does come from improv is from the situations that people see, the attempts you make, the misunderstandings, the surprises. "Oh, I didn't expect that." The callbacks, the reference to something that somebody else had done. Just like in real life, most humor comes from the unintended humor of reality.

                                    It's not about joke telling and improv is not joke telling. Improv is living situations without knowing exactly what the outcome is, but having a goal.

Susan Friedmann:         So I'm curious to get, do you have one or two more little... Like the yes, but the skills that we could practice? What are some other common ones that get taught in an improv class?

Izzy Gesell:                    There's a number of storytelling games and there's a game called Ding where you have two people telling a story. And the third person every so often will go, "Ding." And whoever's speaking has to change the situation. So for example, let's say we have an author and being interviewed on a radio show. And the idea might be that the host says, "This is a great book. Tell me, why'd you write the book?" "Well, I wrote the book because I wanted people to get an understanding of this wonderful process."

                                    And the third person goes, "Bing." "Well, because I needed the money." "Ding." "Oh, because my husband told me that I needed to write it." "Ding." So that game, when you're watching it is funny. The real life benefit is that you learn to think quickly, you don't judge. That's another I would say nugget that's helped me.

                                    Is that because there's quick action, there's no time for judging. "What's the best answer? What else should I say?" Improvisers don't do that. People think they are thinking fast and being funny when really, they're not judging. So they're acting very quickly. And there's a technique that improvisers learn called the point of concentration.

                                    What's the smallest bit of information I need to focus on in order to move forward towards my goal? So in this Ding game that I just told you, you don't have to think about what's the best answer, you just have to think of another answer. Think of another reason, look around, and say, "Oh, I had a bad dream and my cousin told me to do it."

                                    It doesn't matter because you're moving so fast. The gift is in the quickness of it. In fact, if you have a moment, I can teach you a game right now.

Susan Friedmann:         Oh, that would be so much fun.

Izzy Gesell:                    Okay, maybe you've played it. This is a pretty standard game, and maybe some of the listeners have played it with their kids. It's called One Word At A Time Story. Have you played it Susan, when you were taking improv?

Susan Friedmann:         I'm sure we did.

Izzy Gesell:                    Here it is.

Susan Friedmann:         I'm sure we did, but let's try it. Let's see.

Izzy Gesell:                    You and I are going to make up a story that's never been told before. Let's see if we can build a story without knowing where the other person wants to go, or constantly pivot. Okay? You want to try?

Susan Friedmann:         This is so much fun. Yes.

Izzy Gesell:                    Okay. Well, make up a title of a story. I'm looking around here and I'll say, The Lamp That Doesn't Work. Let's tell that story. You want to go first or you want me to go first?

Susan Friedmann:         You go first.

Izzy Gesell:                    Once...

Susan Friedmann:         There was a lamp.

Izzy Gesell:                    Let's do one word at a time.

Susan Friedmann:         Okay.

Izzy Gesell:                    Once...

Susan Friedmann:         Upon... 

Izzy Gesell:                    A...

Susan Friedmann:         Time...

Izzy Gesell:                    My...

Susan Friedmann:         Lamp...

Izzy Gesell:                    Was...

Susan Friedmann:         Broken.

Izzy Gesell:                    Period. When...

Susan Friedmann:         I...

Izzy Gesell:                    Decided...

Susan Friedmann:         To...

Izzy Gesell:                    Fix...

Susan Friedmann:         It...

Izzy Gesell:                    I...

Susan Friedmann:         Got...

Izzy Gesell:                    Nervous.

Susan Friedmann:         Oh!

Izzy Gesell:                    Wow.

Susan Friedmann:         Why...

Izzy Gesell:                    Doesn't...

Susan Friedmann:         It...

Izzy Gesell:                    Work? Question mark, period. Let's end this in the interest of time, but that's a good one, because a lot of things happened there. So what was that like for you?

Susan Friedmann:         Nerveracking. Because like I did, I already didn't follow the rules by saying more than one word and realizing, "Oh, I goofed." It was okay. I lived to tell the tale.

Izzy Gesell:                    Susan, you're right there. One of the things that creative people learn from improv, any creative people is that things are not always going to work out the first time. Even if we have an idea or a structure or a plan. So because we're a team here, I pointed it out and you just went back and said the word.

                                    So the creativity is recognizing that things are not going to be perfect and [inaudible 00:16:07] we do one word or two words. Occasionally, that's fine. The act of getting back on track and using our creative muscles to build, to focus, remember, the point of concentration in this game is just the, "What's the next word?" It's not where the story's going. Couple of times, you said things I didn't expect.

                                    And I could tell that there were a couple of times I said things you didn't expect. And yet, we worked together to create a story. If we had another couple of minutes, we could have either fixed the lamp, bought another one, or threw it out the window.

Susan Friedmann:         And I'm looking at my lap, which is actually working. So I'm thinking, "Okay."

Izzy Gesell:                    Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Susan Friedmann:         Maybe we didn't plug it in, or- 

Izzy Gesell:                    Yeah. And I think another thing that may be relevant to the listeners is one of the memes from improv is improvises learn to use the environment for ideas rather than trying to think of them.

                                    And very often as creators, we get stuck with trying to think of the right idea or the next idea. When you're on stage or when you're in life, you don't always have time to do that. So you look around, because it doesn't matter what this story is. I looked around, I saw the lamp. I said it and then we were playing right away. I could have said, "Wow, what would be the best thing? How am I going to help Susan? What do I want to talk about?" No, tell a story. It doesn't matter.

                                    And the creativity starts to flow from there. So I would say for the listeners, my theory is the way people play is the way we are in situations that are similar in emotional content. When we're kids in play, we reveal our true selves. As adults,  we're very guarded about our true self. And yet, there's something about playing, it could be with our kids. It could be with our friends, it could be on the golf course. We reveal our true selves.

                                    So what I would suggest is pay attention to how you play, and be a kind, compassionate observer. And then note about what works and what doesn't work for you. And what can you learn about yourself that is helpful to you from the way you play?

Susan Friedmann:         Well, that's so interesting, because that leads me to think about workshops that I've run. And that games, as soon as you start introducing a game, the air in the room takes on a whole different atmosphere. I mean, it just changes because people, especially when they get really into it, if you put Play-Doh or crayons on the table or paper and you ask them to draw something or even doing that, like you said, but you do that with drawing.

                                    One person does one thing on the paper and another one does another and then you have to interpret it, but it's all in the moment. And it's really fascinating to watch people in that kind of environment.

Izzy Gesell:                    Exactly. So there's the joy that is related to just the fun aspect of it. And sometimes, when we ask people to play, adults get nervous. Why? Because on some level, we realize if I'm going to play, I'm going to show people my true self. And I don't know if I'm prepared for that.

                                    So there's a matter of trust here. And that's another thing that comes from the applied improv, is not only do you learn to trust yourself, but you learn to trust others. So for example, again, with your work and the people that you've helped with your company, there's a certain level of trust that is built up between the two. You have your role, they have their role and you go back and forth.

                                    Essentially, you're creating a story among the people involved and not everything goes smoothly or according to scripts. So you have to be able to be flexible. Think how many times you've improvised with your authors and for the authors, think about many times they thought they were writing one point or getting to one point and something appeared and they go, "Oh, I didn't even realize that, but I'm going to follow that idea." And that's improv also.

Susan Friedmann:         Yeah, I love that. How about mistakes? I think you've implied them, but let's address them. Listeners love mistakes. Are there specific ones that you can relate to with regard to improv?

Izzy Gesell:                    Yeah. First, I want to say that the word mistake is a loaded word outside of improv. In improv theater, because the improv games have no real world consequence, it's really fine to say, "Well, you can make as many mistakes, whatever you want," but when you make mistakes in real life, there are real world consequences. So I think the approach for the mistake is first of all, de-emphasize the power of a mistake.

                                    Think of it in terms again, of the people we're dealing with are creatives. So mistakes happen. Innovation is all about mistakes and quality control is all about looking at what's working and what's not working and trying to make things that aren't working, working. And the only way you know things aren't working is when something goes wrong. So is it true to say that because you said more than one word, that was a mistake? Maybe technically, but it's not an important mistake.

                                    It's a GPS to you. If we're playing one word at a time, and one of us does more than one word, then that's a note to say, "Oh, okay. I'm a little nervous. I'm making a lot of words together. Let me slow down and give a word." So I think that the lesson for improv is that just because it's not what you expect, it doesn't mean that the mistake has a large consequence. So be compassionate about your miscues and see what you can learn for from them.

                                    It's really a choice of what can you do differently? So it goes back to choices and because there are no real world consequences in improv, you can make all the mistakes every day. And if you keep learning from them, then they are gifts, not detractors.

Susan Friedmann:         That's a really good point. Because as you say, I mean, in our story, there wasn't really any mistake in terms of how it was going to flow, because neither of us really knew. And so was it wrong? No, because we were playing a game and well, life is a game. Just that there are some rules that we have to abide by.

Izzy Gesell:                    There are boundaries.

Susan Friedmann:         Boundaries.

Izzy Gesell:                    You can call them rules. I would prefer to call them boundaries.

Susan Friedmann:         I like that.

Izzy Gesell:                    Because boundaries are related to consents. So boundaries are where you don't want to go. And in this game, the boundary is one word. But if you go over it, no big deal, but that's the boundary. And the consent is I agree to play within these boundaries.

                                    Let's say for coaches, people generally are very hard on themselves if they think they're making an... I'm air quoting, "mistake." So I think that one of the things I've learned and maybe coaches can help their people, is to have some compassion that it's okay to be imperfect, not to understand, again, to make a mistake. The consequences are not indicative of who you are as a person. They're a process issue, not a personality issue.

Susan Friedmann:         And as we said earlier, it just makes you more real.

Izzy Gesell:                    It makes you more real and it's part of the story. All we're talking about in our relationships are stories. I was just doing a program for lawyers on the importance of being able to tell stories as an improvised lawyer, because you have to tell different stories.

                                    It's a different story to the judge, to the jury, to the clients, to the defendant. And everybody has the same data, but not everybody hears the same story. And that's why it's so interesting that storytelling, and improv is very much about storytelling, our game today was all about us storytelling. We could spend days talking about what we could learn from that.

Susan Friedmann:         Fascinating. So if our listeners wanted to find out more about you and the services you provide, how can they do that?

Izzy Gesell:                    The easiest way would be the website. My website is I'm pretty active on LinkedIn. I'm also on Clubhouse, @ImprovIzzy. And also, if there are people on LinkedIn Learning, I do have a couple of courses on LinkedIn Learning. One of them is on improv.

                                    It's called Leading with Applied Improv that gives the basics. Another one is about humor in the workplace. I'd love to connect with as many people as possible. That is my reason, my raison d'etre, really.

Susan Friedmann:         Fantastic.

Izzy Gesell:                    Is to build the communities.

Susan Friedmann:         And as I told you earlier, I said, we always like to end off with a golden nugget, some words of wisdom. So what would you like to leave our listeners with?

Izzy Gesell:                    I learned something new for myself recently, and it's about people being afraid to volunteer because they think they're not safe. What I realized is there's a difference between our safety zone and our comfort zone. We tend to mix them up. So we think we're not safe, but really, we're just uncomfortable. And uncomfortable is easier to get over. If you like scary movies, you go to scary movies because you want to feel uncomfortable, but you go because you feel safe. So that's the newest lesson for me.

Susan Friedmann:         I don't do either. I don't touch scary movies if I can help it. 

Izzy Gesell:                    Well, you don't, but there might be others. Do you like roller coasters?

Susan Friedmann:         I did at one time. Not anymore.

Izzy Gesell:                    Well, at one time when you were liking roller coasters, you went because you were ready to be uncomfortable, but you got on that car because you felt safe, and you knew you were going to come back. So that's what I'm learning for myself, is am I uncomfortable or am I not safe?

                                    And in these COVID days, and in all the things that are going on, the risk assessment is constant for us. Do we go out? Do we cross over? Do we go to the supermarket? Do we mask? Improv is a wonderful, wonderful platform for recognizing to extend our confidence and bravery, which is not about not being afraid, but stepping into the fear, even though we are afraid. And that's where the confidence comes from.

Susan Friedmann:         Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Izzy Gesell:                    Exactly.

Susan Friedmann:         Lovely. Well, Izzy, thank you for sharing your wisdom and I know that we're going to jump over into our membership site shortly, and you're going to talk about I believe it's the story spine.

Izzy Gesell:                    Story spine.

Susan Friedmann:         I know that, yeah, that our members are going to benefit from that. Thank you. And thank you all for taking time out of your precious day to listen to this interview. And I sincerely hope that it sparks some ideas you can use to sell more books. Here's wishing you much book and author marketing success!