For speakers, managers, team leads – and all who have to communicate with others – improv, or improvisational, skills are essential. And we want to make a clear distinction that improv is not simply “winging it” or “talking off the cuff.” It is being present and flexible in the moment – listening and responding to the needs of the situation. Being excellent at improv takes practice.
Why improvisation? Why are business schools incorporating improv into the curriculum?
In business it pays to be nimble with our thoughts, decisions and responses.
Improvisation is about learning to be in the moment, quick on the uptake, and flexible.
Business training realizes it has a great deal to learn from the arts. Improv troupes and jazz musicians understand that improvisation is about knowing your subject so well that you can move without a script, handle variations, and play with embellishment while still having the tune recognizable.
In business, listening is absolutely essential. Improv seems like it can be all about the quick come back or retort. Yet, phenomenal listening skills are the foundation to that response. What do master improv actors and highly successful business people have in common? They excel at listening and observing.
Isn’t it all about trying to be funny?
Seeing improv shows seems like it’s all about games, about being clever and funny. Sometimes improv is funny. Not always. And in most good improv, being funny is not the focus – it’s simply a result. Some of performance improv can have that comedy element to it. Most often, that’s because they are magnifying life moments, and life is funny.
One of the first rules you learn in improv is that you don’t try to be funny. If we try to be funny, we often fall short. Funny gags kill the energy, and the laugh that it causes often sacrifices the work of the other team members. Gags are short moments designed to draw attention to one moment or to the character. In a classic scenario, if two actors are playing mother and daughter, and the mother character offers, “oh, honey, I’m so proud of you finishing your first day of school!” and the daughter retorts “You’re not my mother,” there is almost certainly a laugh… and then the scene dies. It goes nowhere. Forward movement of story was sacrificed for the moment of glory, for the laugh. If, instead, we let real life moments unfold, then that interaction tends to be much funnier*. Business is the same. Business owners are using improv to learn to feel the importance of working as a team with focus on the whole. That “group mind” leads to success. Learning to be flexible and responsive to the moment is key to success in our fast-moving society.
*Humor is its own specialty and there are many experts who speak, write and train on humor.
When would you even use improv in business and speaking ?
In any transaction where you need to listen during communication – when you need to be flexible with decisions, or have to go off script – improv helps us improve. Think about it. We all speak extemporaneously most of the day – unless you get up in the morning and script everything you’ll say that day. Who does that?
This demonstrates how truly gifted we are at improvising, speaking extemporaneously, and responding in the moment.
3 Essential business tips from Improv
The basic tenets of improvisation are called rules or aphorisms – “pithy observations that contain a general truth.” A few of our favorites include “yes, and” and “there are no mistakes, only gifts,” as well as “how to make your partner look good.”
Yes/And has become a universal phrase to move us beyond the re-directive “no, but” or “yes, but.” In improv scene work, we agree with our scene partners to accept a suggestion and build on it. In doing that, we move a scene forward. Constant “buts” can be funny, as in a gag, and yet the scene hits the wall.
“Yes, And” invites creativity and collaboration. Take note of how often you and those around you use “but” when “and” will work as well, or in many cases, be the more correct choice.
We tend to use “but” because it makes us feel safer – more in control. It stops motion. “But” makes it clear that we have a different idea. When we use “and,” it can seem like we’re agreeing with what was just said, when in fact, all we want to do is disagree. By substituting the word “but” with the word “and,” you’ll avoid a lot of unnecessary, and perhaps unintentional, conflicts and move the conversation forward.
When we as listeners hear “but,” it often makes us feel a little defensive, even if the information affirms what we had said. That little word has a great deal of sway. Use it wisely.
Believe me, it will take practice!
There are no mistakes, only gifts.
Improv can help us give up the need to be perfect. Everything that comes to us is a gift. We can’t make a mistake. This allows new ideas to flow and frees our mental resources. We can hear our partners more easily. We are able to be in the moment.
In a meeting, in a presentation, in a pitch – trust what comes, even if it’s unexpected or unplanned. Embrace it as a gift versus panicking in the moment as if it were a “mistake.” When we do that, truly amazing things transpire.
Make your scene partner look good.
All for one and one for all. It truly makes a difference. From years of auditioning and running auditions, it continually amazes me how apparent it is when someone is truly committed to their acting partner and making them look good. It’s equally amazing to see when they are not committed – when they are all about themselves – how quickly their performance looks poor, unskilled or unprofessional.
In business it’s no different. When we make our colleagues or our clients look good, we all win.
In speaking, your audience is your improv scene partner. It’s about them and making them look good.
Now, take the next steps!
- Go watch some improv in your town or city.
- Notice the yes/and. Watch the team accept the gifts and move the energy forward. Watch them make each member look good!
- Then, think about taking a class yourself.
- Now, do it. Try out a few different ones. Each troupe or school can have its own personality and style. Find the one that works for you.
Improvisation classes and workshops hone the skills of listening, being in the moment and knowing when to respond. These are skills essential to good business practice. Your business presentations will benefit; your teams will benefit, and your interactions with others will be forever affected.