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Use Improv to Improve Your Business Skills

Five of the rules of improv and how following those rules can help you as a leader.

by Walt Grassl
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Susie and Ron had been working together for eleven years and had been managers for the last three. Ron was struggling with the challenges of getting his organization to perform at a high level. He had noticed that Susie consistently stayed within budget and not only met—but exceeded—her goals.

Ron saw Susie in line at the company cafeteria and asked if he could sit with her at lunch. After some small-talk, Ron shared his struggles with Susie and jokingly asked what her secret was. 

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Susie mentioned that she had been taking improv classes for a few years and not only were they a lot of fun, they helped her overcome her fear of speaking in public and make a bigger impact in meetings. 

Ron was not familiar with improv. Susie explained that improv is unscripted comedy that requires quick thinking from the participants. In improv, the plot, characters and the dialogue of a scene are made up in the moment. The key to making improv work is players all following a specific set of rules. Susie recognized that those rules could improve her performance at work, as well. 

Susie explained to Ron five of the rules of improv and how following those rules helped her as a leader: 

  1. Say yes. Agreement, saying “yes”, is one of the most important rules of improv. An improv scene begins with each individual doing some space-work, the physical representation of an activity, and making eye contact. One character begins the scene with a line. If you are doing space work that you intend to be “hanging a picture” and before you label yourself that way, your partner says you are “a striking worker shaking your fist”, you must discard your idea and agree with the label your partner gives you. You must agree with what your partner says. 

In the workplace this means respecting what your fellow employee says or has created. Do not dismiss it because it differs with your perception or your opinion. Take time to understand their belief and their feelings, and then proceed from a basis of agreement. 

In addition to saying yes, an improv performer should provide their own information to the scene, saying ‘yes, and”. In the example above, now being labeled a striking worker, the improviser should add information like, “Yes, and I will continue to strike until management lets me bring my pet iguana to work.” If you merely agree in an improv scene without adding information, you put the weight and direction of the scene entirely on your partner’s shoulders. 

In a professional sense, this means don't make your teammates do all the work; contribute both your work effort and your ideas to help move your projects forward. Contributing your ideas means both giving your new and novel ideas and also looking to grow and add to the ideas of your teammates. Yes, I understand your idea, and, what if we modify it this way. “Yes, and.” 

  1. Mistakes are ok. In an improv scene, when a performer makes a mistake, it is an opportunity to “yes, and” the mistake. If you and I are in a scene and you say my name is Michael, and then later call me John, I can acknowledge it and say something like “You’re just like my mom, she confuses me and my twin brother John all the time.”

At work, when something doesn't go well, there are lessons to be learned or potential new opportunities. Why did the mistake happen? What is the result of the mistake? 

Can that result be used in a different way? While trying to develop a high-strength adhesive, a 3M employee accidentally created a low-strength, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. This eventually enabled the Post-It Note. 

  1. Start somewhere. There is no perfect place to begin an improv scene. Begin with the first thing that comes to mind. Once you start, you begin layering on the agreements and a scene develops. 

In the workplace, there is often a tendency to be paralyzed with what you don’t know, rather than identify what you know and make some sound judgments about where to start. As new information arrives, adjust course. Losing time due to uncertainty often starts a project out behind and makes it harder to stay on schedule and on budget. 

  1. Make your partner look good. Two ways improv players can make their partner look good is by rescuing someone who is struggling and by not hogging control of the scene. Beautiful improv is in the give and take, and the layering of contributions. The same is true in the office. 

When a coworker has an agenda and minimizes the information their partner has shared, the project can be lacking. Should they happen to falter and their partner helps get them back on track, they both look good. When people focus on doing good work and not worrying about who gets individual credit, the team is more likely to succeed. Then, everyone gets the credit. 

  1. Be in the moment. In an improv scene, one must be totally focused on the now. Where is the scene and what information has your partner just added. If you had planned ahead in the scene or were thinking about a problem at work or at home, you miss some information. 

An obvious example is when you are in a meeting at work. Participate and contribute, don't check your phone or your computer, or have side conversations. 

One form of being in the moment is listening, truly listening to understand, not to just wait to reply. Hear not only the words, but the emotions behind the words. You have to truly listen to know how to reply. 

Ron took Susie’s advice. He began taking improv classes. Initially, like most beginners, he struggled. He stayed with it, took additional classes and gradually began to apply the rules of improv in his scenes without thinking. He also found himself following the rules in the office, and noticed a marked improvement in his performance during meetings and in his overall workplace skills.

About the author

Walt Grassl is a speaker, author, and performer. He hosts the radio show, “Stand Up and Speak Up,” on the RockStar Worldwide network. Walt has performed standup comedy at the Hollywood Improv and the Flamingo in Las Vegas and is studying improv at the Groundlings School in Hollywood. For more information on bringing Walt Grassl to your next event, please visit