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July 2024
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The International Improv Toastmasters Club in Beijing includes time in its meetings for playing improv games.

Improv-ing Club Meetings

How 3 clubs are getting laughs and flexing their spontaneous speaking skills.

By Stephanie Darling

You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

This advice, from the 1970s movie Jaws, about the hunt for a killer shark, was delivered by actor Roy Scheider to the boat captain, just after Scheider’s character—and the audience—come face to face with a giant shark in the water behind their rickety fishing boat.

The phrase was part of an inside joke among the film crew, and Scheider chose to ad-lib it at the perfect point in the story. It became one of the most famous unscripted lines in movie history.

It was a memorable example of improvisation—or improv—the art of saying or doing something relevant to the moment, yet completely unplanned. Improv is a classic dramatic technique, rooted in storytelling, and long practiced in the performing arts, including dance, music, acting, comedy—and even public speaking. After all, Toastmasters have been honing spontaneous speaking talents for decades through Table Topics®.

Some Toastmasters believe so heartily in improv that they incorporate it even more fully into club meetings, not just in Table Topics. Improv fosters self-discovery—as well as an exploration into shared creativity, collaboration, and community—something Toastmasters also fosters. The technique is ideally suited to comedy, which is why many Toastmasters clubs enjoy it. It aligns well with Toastmasters founder Dr. Ralph C. Smedley’s long-ago observation: “We learn best in moments of enjoyment.”

“There’s an inclination to unravel a fresh self through improv, exploring the untapped potential of one’s body and voice,” notes Belinda Wu, President of International Improv Toastmasters Club, a Chinese-English speaking club chartered in March 2023, in Beijing. “It also gives us the treasured bonus of camaraderie and joy.”

Karen Rae Hannah, President of the online Improv and Humor Toastmasters club, loves the uplifting comedic benefits of improv. It’s a chance to be silly, laugh out loud, and boost spirits.

“I encourage people to view this as a golden ticket out of their comfort zones and a gateway to uncharted growth.”

—Belinda Wu

“Improv is a very ‘up’ experience for me,” Hannah says. “Nourishing a sense of humor is a very important part of mental health and creativity that can get lost in the challenges of our daily lives.”

In this episode of  The Toastmasters Podcast, Karen Rae Hannah, president of Improv Humor Toastmasters club, talks about the benefits of bringing improvisation into club meetings.

At its core, improv is an immersive dip into pulling all of one’s communication skills into action, without a single forethought, adds Rosetta Walker, President of Improv Toastmasters, an online club based in North Hollywood, California. It’s the unknown that creates the thrill and builds the skill.

“Spontaneity—that’s what improv brings to the table,” Walker says.

The “Yes, AND” rule of improv—where members agree to participate in the exercise, no matter how confident or wobbly they may feel—is an ideal technique for encouraging spontaneity and creativity. Techniques for incorporating this rule vary widely, from games to sketches involving two or more people. Adding a club role, such as an Improv Master or a Joke Master further helps members collaborate on spirited, imaginative improv scenarios each week.

A common bond is having fun while doing it, club leaders say.

“Our members come to polish personal and professional skills, but also to relieve stress by having fun with a sociable group, or simply to have a good laugh. That last reason is probably underrated in our society, but it’s something truly valuable,” says Xiaocheng Stephen Hu, DTM, with Beijing’s International Improv Toastmasters Club.

Improv sessions can be incorporated into a club meeting in a variety of ways. Here’s a look at how three clubs are sparking spontaneity with members.

Improv Toastmasters

This California-based online club is so committed to the art form that it’s written into the club’s mission statement, according to Thomas Iland, AS, DTM, of Valencia, California, an Accredited Speaker and Vice President Education of the club.

The statement reads: “… every member has the opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills and learn improv and improv-related skills …”

“Basically, life itself is about improv so in our club, the key is to say ‘yes’ and see where it leads you,” Iland explains. “It has changed so many lives I know, on so many levels.”

He added that many members in this President’s Distinguished Club have gone on to successfully participate in speaking competitions, launch careers as professional speakers, or enhance their careers by boosting spontaneous speaking skills.

The club follows the traditional meeting format but begins and ends with improv games drawing in everyone who wants to participate. “We start and end the meeting laughing,” Iland says.

A popular game style is the round robin, which begins with a question or story thread with each member adding to the unfolding narrative. This practice is especially helpful in developing listening skills, as speakers logically or illogically add their own performance twist, based on what previous speakers have contributed.

Iland says that many club members are new to improv, so he appreciates the “carte blanche” permission it gives to individual expression, which is a foundational building block in Toastmasters’ philosophy, as well.

“Some people come to improv naturally, others don’t. So we encourage everyone to go at their own pace,” Iland says. “Get comfortable and remember, there are no wrong answers so just go for it!”

Former Club President Rick Randall of Quartz Hill, California, says improv helped reframe his wit, a personal talent he’s always prided himself on.

“Improv has helped me professionalize my wittiness by combining the basic foundation of public speaking with a fast-thinking approach to conversationalism,” he says. “I’m a more refined person because of improv.”

International Improv Toastmasters Club

Improv has always been a “significant part of club activities,” says Wu, of this in-person club based in Beijing, China.

The club’s Improv Master opens the first hour, “when we aim to loosen our bodies, throats, and minds and pave the way for the subsequent hour, where we deliver or receive exemplary speech skills and insights,” Wu explains.

“We use all kinds of improv games, including some really dynamic exercises that bring out the body language, vocal variety, and emotions among players. And when someone comes up with a funny line, the room erupts in laughter,” adds Stephen Hu, DTM, also of the Beijing club.

“At the same time,” he says, “these skills can be applied to many real-life situations. When we interact with someone, most of our conversations will be improvised. So a skillful improv player will be able to go with the flow in any situation.”

Both Wu and Hu are convinced that the club’s lively, opening improv session creates an aura of excitement among attendees that carries through the entire club meeting.

“Having been energized by the improv hour, members usually feel more expressive when delivering Pathways speeches. Maybe that’s why our speech reservations fill up so quickly,” they say.

Improv is regarded as a popular teambuilding activity in Chinese corporate culture, explains Hu. “Although perhaps not as popular as stand-up comedy at a national level, there are certainly improv troupes in major cities, performing in Chinese and sometimes in English.”

However, the idea of improv didn’t necessarily come naturally to the club’s Chinese members, he adds.

Group of people gathered at dinner tableMembers of the International Improv Toastmasters Club often gather after their meetings.

“When we started, I could feel that our fellow Chinese members needed some time to overcome the apparent challenges of saying ‘yes’ and conjuring wild stories on the spot. At times, I found myself needing to use my right and left brain, typically used in critical thinking. Now I think all of us are a bit more seasoned and I regard this confidence boost very highly!”

Wu also found improv “uncharted territory” when she joined the club. Her longtime love of spontaneous dance, an art form that has used improv for centuries, won her ardent support for bringing the practice into the club.

Some members are naturally exhilarated by improv’s novel approach for expression; others, like Wu, are initially apprehensive.

“I encourage people to view this as a golden ticket out of their comfort zones and a gateway to uncharted growth,” Wu says. Club support for every participant is a given. “Our improv masters have a keen eye for the quiet souls, easing them into improv that often leads to heartwarming breakthroughs.”

Improv and Humor

This club chartered in 2013 with a specific emphasis on improv training—and met in person for years before they became online-only during the pandemic. The shift drew new members from around the world.

Club meetings open with a 30-minute improv session featuring multi-person skits and games that strengthen expressive skills—and usually end in laughter. A favorite tactic is to set up improv scenes between two or more people and “use it to practice trust, vocal variety, self-awareness, quick thinking, and much more,” notes Barbara Woo, DTM, a professional actress who joined the club long ago to help her “ace” her auditions.

“The idea is to keep the scene moving, trust your partner, and take chances,” Woo explains. “Part of the thrill is free-falling into a scene knowing your partner will catch you. Just like in real life, exploring the unknown and taking those chances yields unexpected, wonderful results.”

The club creates a weekly theme that provides a tie-in for Pathways speeches, Table Topics, and improv games, setting up a cohesive learning experience for all. Because improv is a fluid art form, members can try out many different forms of expression, generally resulting in everyone leaving the meeting having learned at least one new thing. That’s a continual benefit to members, all of whom have different reasons for wanting to become skilled improvisors, Club President Hannah says.

“We have complete newbies, professional actors, businesspeople, retirees, working professionals, people who are pursuing speaking or coaching careers, people with English as a second language who want to become more comfortable thinking quickly at work and in conversations,” Hannah says, describing the member diversity in her club.

“Just like in real life, exploring the unknown and taking those chances yields unexpected, wonderful results.”

—Barbara Woo, DTM

Woo, a busy actress, says improv helped her stand out among her peers. “How do you make a lasting impression, so the casting director wants to follow your character out of the room?” she says. Club improv has taught her body movements, facial expression, vocal strength, and the confidence to overcome stage fright.

Ultimately, improv is rooted in stories, told by many people, from many different viewpoints and communication styles.

“Improv is a journey of growth, spontaneity, and a deeper connection with the art of storytelling,” Woo adds.


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