research funding database

Confidence Unscripted: Training Your Self-Assurance with Improvisational Theater Methods

Share this post

Guest Author Perspective on the blue banner. The title says 'Confidence Unscripted: Training Your Self-Assurance with Improvisational Theater Methods'. The name of the author Jaydene Witchell, PhD, is below the title. An image of the author is on the right. The logo of scientifyRESEARCH is at the bottom.

Looking to polish your presentation or soft skills as a researcher, look no further! We’re sharing an amazing opportunity to train under an expert who is supporting researchers with their self-development to achieve a successful and fulfilling career. Dr. Markus Gyger holds a PhD in Biophysics from the University of Leipzig and has been working as a freelance trainer and coach since 2011 on a range of topics to support researchers.

We recently hosted a free webinar “Academic Speaking: Confidence in front of an audience using improvisational theater exercises” with Markus and we are currently offering special discounted vouchers for these individual and group sessions.

Dr Markus offers training on topics such as:

-How to be confident in front of an audience? The status model of improvisational theatre

– A deep dive into procrastination: Why we do it and how to deal with it

– Is it enough to be SMART? The power of setting the right goals

– Asking the right question at the right time? The power of systemic question techniques

Improvisational theater isn’t just about creativity and being funny on stage – it can be a game changer for building confidence when speaking in public, talking to your boss, or conversing with a stranger. Immerse yourself in the world of improv, where “failing happily” and accepting offers are the keys to success. Learn how to observe, adjust your status, and gain the confidence to apply these skills in real-life situations.

How can I appear to be convincing even though I am completely clueless? This is a question that comes up time and time again with my participants when I ask them what it is they want to achieve in my workshops on self-confidence. But is this really what we want to achieve? Imposter’s syndrome is common among scientists. Trying to appear convincing when you are completely clueless is not a way out, but risks increasing your insecurities. What’s more if you succeed, you don’t just feel like an imposter, you really become one. Now, if this approach is not helpful, how can you really gain more confidence? One helpful approach is positive self-awareness. Improvisation theater approaches offer a unique way of creating a safe setting and allow you to test your limits within that safe space. There is a number of rules to improvisation that may be even more valuable in everyday life than on stage.

If You Fail, Fail with Dignity

Keith Johnstone, the inventor of modern improvisation, taught his actors to “fail happily. If you want to improvise a good story, you have to take risks. If you fail, you should accept that failure. No audience in the world wants to see an actor get mad at himself. On “real life stages” you see it all the time: losing the plot while giving a talk at a conference, an embarrassing slip of the tongue in an important conversation, a name we forgot – somehow, we have the impulse to punish ourselves in such situations. But that doesn’t undo the mistake; it usually makes the situation worse; dignified behavior looks different. The mistake has already happened anyway, and mistakes are human, so why not just pause for a moment and start again? Failure is human. When we forgive ourselves for mistakes, we make it easier for those around us to do the same.

Work with What You Have

Improvisational theater trains actors to observe carefully and use what is already there. This is a tip worth its weight in gold for any conversation starter. “I can’t make small talk!” “Should I really be talking to people about the weather?” I get these statements in my networking workshops almost every time. Bad books on small talk give lists of what to say and what not to say. Then you crank out your three standard questions and then? It probably feels as artificial to both of you as it really is. If you pay attention to your surroundings, you can almost always find a “natural” conversation starter: a reference to a special highlight at the buffet, a comment about a good lecture, or simply a sincere question about whether you may join the conversation. And here comes the next rule of improv: It is always easier to be positive. It is better to praise something than to criticize it (sorry, dear fellow Germans!).

The next improv rule that fits here is: Everything is an offer. If the train conductor makes a funny comment over the loudspeaker and the person next to me has to smile just as much as I do, that is an invitation to talk. If someone wants to know my opinion or asks me for help, that’s an offer to strengthen the relationship. And if my colleague wants to give me feedback on my presentation, that’s an offer, too. And here it comes: Offers can be accepted! Whether I do or not is my decision.

Train Your Perception

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be particularly creative to do improv. Rather, it helps to observe faster and more accurately than the audience, and then use what you have observed. Scenes and entire stories seem to emerge out of nowhere. The body language, the voice, the look, all of that carries a lot of information. If you watch closely, you get information that others don’t have: Who is dominating, who is subordinating? Is this behavior changing or constant? We send unconscious signals with our body language, with our voice, with our gaze, and we react to them just as unconsciously. Johnstone once called this the “kinetic dance”. He noticed it because it was missing in his early scenes. We know that stiff, wooden feeling from badly acted scenes: A cheaply produced documentary on TV, the witnesses in a courtroom show. We realize in seconds that it’s not real. It seems “acted.” But why? Because the natural reactions to the other person are missing once we have an audience. To overcome this, we have to artificially put the “natural” reactions back in. Johnestone named the concept that he developed from this observation “status”.

High status players take their time, move slowly, and remain calm. They take up space, stand up straight, and speak in a firm voice. Low status players make themselves small, speak in a shaky or flat voice. They play with their watch or their hair and move nervously. What status do we assume when we don’t think about it? Always the one in which we feel most secure. When we think that being small and cute will get us where we want to go, we adopt the low status of “Don’t bite me, I’m not worth it.” We want to be liked and accept that we may not win. Sometimes we think we will win more by kicking ass. “Don’t come near me, I’ll bite!” We want to assert ourselves and accept that others may not like us or see us as competition. Most of the time, we find ourselves somewhere between these two extremes. A good conversation at eye level is not characterized by equality of status, but by the fact that the status of the conversation partners is accepted and not attacked. Usually, the status changes depending on who is speaking and who is listening.

We all have our “protective status.” We retreat to this status when we feel insecure. Some start yelling when they are attacked or questioned, others retreat. If we can learn to recognize the status of others and adjust our status according to the situation, we can gain a lot. It is not always the one with the higher status who wins. When both try to be higher in status, it leads to the kind of argument that is not about content, but about control. If we recognize that early enough, we can choose to play along or not. I often decide, “Okay, I’m going to let you win the status battle and I’m going to achieve my content goal.” Yes, it takes a certain amount of confidence to do that, but the experience that it really works amazingly often boosts confidence tremendously.

Improtheater Strengthens Your Self-Confidence

Improtheater exercises allow you to practice all of these things. Improv provides a safe environment to try things out and push your own boundaries. You’ll find that a lot of things will work if you don’t “try” timidly, but rather go for it with a high risk and a positive attitude, if you work together as a team and value each other’s ideas as much as your own. And the more confident you are that it will work, the more you’ll have the confidence to apply what you’ve learned in the real world. I can attest to this from personal experience: Improv builds confidence, and it does so in the long run.

About the Author:

Dr. Markus Gyger holds a PhD in Biophysics from the University of Leipzig. He has been working as a freelance trainer and coach since 2011. The focus of his work is to equip scientists and prospective managers with the key skills they need for a successful career: performing convincingly in front of an audience, organizing their work effectively and conducting meetings in a goal-oriented manner.

For further information please visit:

Dr. Markus Gyger will be a guest speaker for a free webinar we are hosting on November 8, 2023. You can learn more and register here.

Would you like to be featured on our blog?

Get in touch with us!

phd student funding

Sign-up for our monthly
research funding newsletter

you can unsubscribe at any time