The business world abounds with presentation tips, from training courses and how-to books to speakers who promise to teach you better public-speaking skills. The best source often goes unnoticed: your own middle market company colleagues, who actually present to some of the same internal and external audiences that you do. Sharing experiences, whether good, bad or downright ugly, is the fastest way to improve your technique. Another surprising way of bolstering presentation skills is through improvisation.

When teaching improv, the best presentation tips have to do with preparing for the unexpected.

You may have seen improv done on television or in a live venue. It involves unscripted interactions between actors and the audience, and it's based on confronting unexpected situations. For example, an audience member might be asked to suggest two animals, and then the actors will have a dialogue as those creatures.

Improv techniques can make you a better presenter because they force you to think on your feet, which is a beneficial skill for midmarket presenters. You and your colleagues can actually set up improv situations as a training tool at a departmental training day or a lunch and learn. Be sure to stress that these exercises are just training and let your employees know it's a safe space to make mistakes — and to have fun. Because you likely have a smaller number of employees, and they know each other better than their counterparts at big companies, middle market businesses have an advantage in organizing and implementing such improv sessions.

Here are a few suggestions for using improv to develop presentation skills:

  1. Use verbal and nonverbal expression. This exercise requires two people. Have one stand motionless, be expressionless and speak in a monotone. The other person can't speak and must use nonverbal expressions, like facial motions, hand gestures and physical movement, to connect with the audience. Yes, this might seem silly, but it also forces presenters to think about the effects of their body language. The nonverbal person can ham it up knowing that this won't happen during a real presentation.
  2. Role-play emergency scenarios. There's no better way to develop contingency plans than in the relative safety of a training exercise. Have the presenter start speaking and then pull the plug from the projector or laptop. This forces presenters well outside their comfort zones, which is the whole idea of improv. The purpose of this exercise is to deal effectively with problems and quickly develop an effective, more interactive plan B. In another scenario, audience members might be encouraged to doze off or give only partial attention to the speaker. Much like the first exercise, this scenario challenges the presenter to quickly engage observers. Practice both best-case and worst-case scenarios. Doing so will help presenters visualize and respond to almost anything that can happen. Midmarket companies need to be much more flexible than larger rivals, and so do their employees. Role-playing develops flexibility.
  3. Prepare for interaction. Though presenters may ask the audience to hold questions until the end, it doesn't always happen. During an improv session, someone in the audience should interrupt several times. Have the person ask questions to try to throw off the speaker. Again, this scenario requires the presenter to think quickly and maintain a sense of humor. When the actual Q&A starts, give the audience role cards. One role might be "person who asks completely unrelated questions," and another could be "person who asks the same question in different ways." A third role could be "ad hominem in the house," meaning that the questioner focuses on the presenter rather than the presentation's content. Just like with emergency scenarios, the key is for the speaker to develop poise when dealing with surprising situations.
  4. Get used to real-time audience feedback. Pass out green and red signs to each audience member. The red sign should say something like "I don't follow you!" or "A bit dull here," and the green sign should say something like "You've got my attention now!" or "I like that!" Audience members should flash one of their two signs whenever they deem it appropriate. If the presenter sees a roomful of red signs during a certain section, he may want to skip over that part or change his style quickly.

Not only will improv exercises have your presenters thinking faster on their feet, but they'll also help your employees connect through an activity that promotes silliness and stepping outside of one's comfort zone. Additionally, improv can help your speakers adjust to the size of an audience, especially when your middle market company presents to big corporations or small startups. When your employees have fun with each other in a safe space and develop important skills to boot, that's a big win-win for everyone.

Have you ever participated in presenter training at your workplace? What are some of the most helpful presentation tips you've gathered? Let us know by commenting below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education.