#Take5 #21: The best way to develop presentation skills?

This #Take5 blog has been written by Lynne Crook and captures the essence of her excellent interactive session delivered in Hull at the 2017 ALDinHE Conference.

BIO: Lynne has worked in HE since 2003, and is currently an Academic Skills Consultant at the University of Salford. Her academic background and PhD are in English Literature, specifically the uses of comedy in the contemporary Irish novel. Since 2008, in her spare time, she has also performed stand-up comedy and then improvised comedy with several troupes around the north-west of England.

Using Improvisation Skills for Confidence Building in Public Speaking for Students

Trying to write anything about improvisation is a tricky task. Really, as Mick Napier (guru of improvisation) says, the only way to learn about it is by ‘…doing it. Doing it. Doing it’ (2004, p.2). As someone with a background in comedy improvisation, I have found that the main issue is not so much explaining the practical benefits. As a theatre format, it is clear to many that improvisation can help with skills such as body language and thinking on ones feet, especially in arenas such as public speaking.

However, I would argue that it is the less tangible benefits of a change in mindset that can be most helpful. It is this hunch which led to a new workshop – and associated research project – for our students at the University of Salford, combining (often silly) improvisational exercises and some of the skills needed for public speaking in Higher Education.

Public speaking is an increasingly important issue, with most students having to undertake a presentation, often in their first few weeks at university. ‘Public Speaking’ can also encompass other forms of assessment, such as vivas, and less formal aspects of being a student, such as speaking out in class.

Our team has run standard sessions on presentations for some time. These cover all aspects such as structure, content and PowerPoints. However, while some time was spent on dealing with nerves, many students (both in workshops and one-to-ones) cited this emotional aspect as their main issue. Additionally, across the sector there are increasing numbers of students declaring issues such as anxiety, impacting further on their confidence.

In practice, the new workshop involved a series of improvisation games, linking them to skills such as eye contact, brevity of expression and performing in front of an audience. However, this also draws on the ethos of improvisation as a collaborative process. Hopefully, this fosters a group dynamic in which students can ‘fail cheerfully…’ (Barker 2016), and draw upon each other as a source of support.

Some of our Games

The name game: stand in a circle. Each person says their name, then says an animal that begins with the same letter, then acts out the animal. E.g. I’m Lynne and I’m a lion *roar*. It just gets everyone used to looking silly.

I’m a treehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_4KacJam5c This is used to get the students used to standing up in front of each other and being the centre of attention.

Pass the claphttps://www.dramanotebook.com/drama-games/pass-the-clap/ (we also passed across the circle). This involves concentrating on eye contact and body language. Often worth noting how the students stand differently after the exercise – usually with far more open body language and less things like folded arms.

It worked!

The positive change in mindset suggested by Barker (2016), and the importance of collaborative support, seemed to be largely borne out in our research project. There seemed to be positive effects for students generally. What was noticeable was that this positive correlation was stronger for ‘nerves’ than ‘confidence’. Free text comments seemed to indicate that this may be because students with a formal presentation also felt they needed more advice on structuring, which would be provided by the existing presentation workshops.

However, the positive effect on nerves, and the free text comments which praised the group atmosphere, did underline how such improvisation could build a ‘community’ of support. With some students commenting that they would like further sessions to build on what they learnt, it did seem that there was some use to teaching students to be less afraid of the unknown!

Get in touch

If anyone is interested in learning more about how the power of silliness can help your students, please feel free to contact me (l.v.crook@salford.ac.uk)


Barker, L.M. (2016). Invoking Viola Spolin: Improvisational Theater, Side-Coaching, and Leading Discussion. English Journal, 105(5). 23-28

Napier, M. (2004). Improvise: Scene from the inside out. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann


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