An increasing number of entrepreneurs are recognizing how improv comedy can bring serious benefits to their business, including new ideas and fresh approaches.
Improv can improve teamwork, collaboration and innovation in a workplace. Use of the "Yes, and” technique means team players build on the thoughts of others, rather than shutting down the ideas of their peers by presenting problems and roadblocks.
As an improviser performing in the Twin Cities, I’ve found that the skills used onstage often pay off in the boardroom, especially for those who are fresh arrivals to a team, new to a career or trying to launch business initiatives. These seven improv lessons can help you overcome doubts and add value when and where it’s needed most:
1. Follow the fear.
The late Del Close, a wild force of an actor, writer and teacher of improv -- who trained folks like Bill Murray, Tina Fey, the Belushi brothers, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert, to name a few -- coached actors to live and breathe this mantra: Follow the fear.
If that leap you’re getting ready to make leaves your palms sweaty and your breath short, then do it. If a new idea refuses to be silenced, then go for it. This advice applies especially well to those pursuing a new creative or strategic endeavor.
Often your fear is what’s guiding you. Perhaps the direction is a challenging one, but it’s probably the right one. Trust your instincts and throw your committed effort behind it.
2. Get comfortable existing in chaos.
You’ll never know what’s going to happen next, so don’t try to figure it out. Most projects and initiatives involve a variety of moving parts that come at you from various directions, often with missing details or information. Del Close is said to have described the Harold, a long-form improv structure, as “like building a 747 in mid-flight.”
If you let uncertainty or chaos derail you, that means lost time and opportunities. Cozy up to chaos and let unknowns (and surprises) fuel your performance rather than hinder it.
3. Trust your teammates.
Certain improvisers act as if they know best how a scene should go. So what do they do? They gently (or not so gently) guide their team into the abyss with them, steamrolling ideas and staunching possibilities.
No thanks. Instead, know that each person brings a unique perspective to the team and can lead everyone to exciting discoveries. When tackling a project, follow this advice attributed to Close: “Don’t bring a cathedral into a scene. Bring a brick; let’s build together.”
4. Be authentic and honest.
There’s a saying in improv circles meant to dissuade actors from going for the easy laugh ather than responding to a scene in a genuine way: “Don’t be funny. You’re not funny.”
Trying to be something you’re not can be off-putting to other staffers and clients. They can spot misguided and misplaced effort miles away, and in keeping with the approach of improviser T.J. Jagodowski, effort is ugly.
Improvisers work hard to make sure their scenes appear as natural and effortless as possible. Organizations responding to business challenges or client needs should follow that lead. Be authentic, real and rely on hard work to deliver results so remarkable, they seem effortless.
5. Communicate clearly and directly.
Make strong declarations and don’t be subtle. Don’t be coy. In improv, a partner acting in a scene doesn’t want to engage in a guessing game. And members of an audience don't want to watch it. They want progress. They want a show. They want change.
How does that happen? Voice your thoughts with authority and with clear meaning and intent. Don’t let confusion hinder progress. It’s a waste of time and talent.
6. Know what you want.
Displaying solid emotion and a point of view is vital to creating any character on an improv stage. But introduce apathy and the scene dies.
Bring apathy to the boardroom and your ability to add value ends. Teacher and improviser Jill Bernard tells me via email that she instructs her students, "If you give yourself something simple, an emotion, a voice, a posture, then no one can steamroll you. You’re starting from a position of strength." This confident and anchored approach makes the person valuable onstage and indispensable on a business team.
Don’t waver. Don’t hedge your bets. Be decisive. This doesn’t mean your opinions can’t change. It just means you know exactly where you’re starting and so does your team.
7. Get out of your own way.
Self-editing is an improviser’s worst enemy. The more you get inside your head, the more you want to stay quiet, the more you do nothing.
Improviser and teacher Susan Messing has this to say about how far a person can push improv: “You’re only limited by your lack of imagination and fear of appearing stupid.”
When it comes to tackling a new project or making your mark on a new team, the same self-editing methods may come into play. Don’t let them cement you to the stage. And don’t let your fear be a weakness. Let it be a compass.
New business challenges, career ventures and tense boardrooms can present intimidating situations that leave you doubting your ability to make an impact. When looking for a strategic way to add value to your team’s initiatives, think and act like an improviser. In the end, winning audiences and attracting new business really aren't all that different.