Using Improv Techniques to Learn Public Speaking

Using Improv Techniques to Learn Public Speaking

Course: COM 42: Improvisationally Speaking
Instructors: Matthew Abrahams and Adam Tobin
Department/School: Continuing Studies
Course Description: Seminar, Lecture
Audience: 20-40 Continuing Education students 
Schedule: Tuesdays, 7:00-8:50pm

Teaching & Learning Strategies:

Adam Tobin, smiling, gesturingThe two instructors complement each other's teaching and style. Tobin covers the more improvisational side of the class, including improv games that get students speaking to each other, in varying faux-situations, such as job interviews. Abrahams focuses more on the analytical side of public speaking:  what makes someone a good speaker, and how to recreate these habits in one’s own speaking.

As Tobin explains, “Matt is a Public Speaking professor, and I’m teaching the improv aspect of it.” This practice of having two components and finding a synthesis extends to how the class is taught as well. The two professors mentioned that they are even learning from each other: throughout the course, they have formed a solid team which utilizes their individual strengths of analyzing and replicating good speaking techniques, and also how to speak well in changing environments.

Matt Abrahams headshotTobin and Abrahams have an advantage in teaching their class: the Wallenberg Learning Theater, with its multimedia capabilities and flexible physical space. Because Improvisationally Speaking combines movement, group discussion, and technology, the Wallenberg Learning Theater was a great asset for the teaching team. Tobin discussed how he would often have the students get up, move around, and then return to their seats and switch to something on the projectors, led by Abrahams. He highlighted the value of having multiple projectors for activities like comparing two documents at once without having to arrange them both on one screen.

"We can use [the room] as a stage...or we can use it as a physical workshop space. We do all of that in every class, basically," says Tobin. Over the span of just one class, students will often go through improvisation exercises, traditional lecture-style teaching, and use of the projectors and whiteboards. "It's a pretty dynamic use of the space for us," says Tobin.

Out-of-Class Activities:  

Although the class is mainly dependent on in-class activities, for homework students read assigned texts which are discussed--and more importantly, put to use--in class. Homework also includes real-life applications. For example, students are encouraged to take what they’ve been learning and use it in everyday situations, such as making introductions or answering an unexpected question.

Tobin and Abrahams encourage students to “have an awareness” about what makes them nervous and how to counteract these feelings in order to have a successful time speaking to others outside of the class, on their own time. “We teach skills and then we have them do it,” says Abrahams.

In-Class Activities:

Since practice is key to the goals of the class, in-class activities are where most learning takes place.  Peer collaboration and review, improvisational exercises, lecture, demonstrations, and review of recorded speeches by celebrities are all used by Abrahams and Tobin.

One technique they use is “Think-Pair-Share.” Students are assigned a challenge, such as introducing a  person or quickly preparing a toast for a celebration. In pairs, each person then shares what they come up with on the spot to each other. Next, this pair finds two other pairs, forming a group of six, and everyone shares once again. Not only does this enable everyone to get a chance to speak (a tough thing to do with a class of 40), but it also eases everyone out of their comfort zone gradually, rather than immediately putting them up in front of a large group.

Video by Robert Emery Smith


Goals include building on natural speaking and improvisational abilities to become more comfortable presenting with authority and awareness. Many students enroll in the class due to nervousness surrounding public speaking, but during the class, they learn what the root of this nervousness is, and how to use that to improve their performance in normal, daily interactions.

Lessons Learned:

“I think the biggest lesson [for us] was [that] it took students a little time to get on board,” says Tobin. Some students seemed unsure where the synergy between improvisation and public speaking was found, but after making it clear to them what was expected of them, they went on to do very well.  The team also questioned the students at the end of class to see what they thought the most important points wereSometimes the students' takeaway ended up being what Abrahams and Tobin expected, and sometimes not. This gave them guidance for what to focus on next, or how to better structure it in the future.

“Students grow in comfort,” adds Tobin. “We learned to echo and reinforce what we we’re looking for--‘Go with us for a little bit.’”


The course is constantly evolving as the team grows more comfortable with this particular course and with each new group of students that enrolls, but the structure--a system that promotes the nexus between improvised situations and analysis on speaking well--will continue to provide the blueprint for the class.

Sierra Freeman is a junior majoring in English.