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Key Learnings from Improv Theatre



Key Learnings from Improv Theatre

The corporate world and improvisational comedy may seem like odd bedfellows at first, but the two actually share a lot in common. In fact, the tenets of improv are being increasingly used to teach real-world skills for business success.


“Business and comedy have overlap in that you’re always listening and adjusting — committing hard to where you started, but open and flexible to following unexpected opportunities and ideas,” says Chelsea Clarke, an Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre instructor who runs the organization’s corporate training program.

Corporate improv workshops are increasing in popularity — last year, UCB held training sessions for Disney, Google, Viacom, Citigroup, GE, and Pepsi, among others — and improv is even being taught at top-tier business schools at Columbia, Duke, MIT, and Stanford.


But it’s not always about being funny — it’s also about learning a valuable suite of soft skills that can help with team building, collaboration, leadership, and communication. Here are 6 essential lessons that businesses can learn from improv.


1. Start listening — really listening

It’s all too easy to develop bad listening habits. You might find yourself partially listening to someone, but already thinking about what you’re going to say next, especially if you’re nervous about an upcoming presentation or pitch.

“In business, we find that people tend to listen just to respond, as opposed to really listening to understand someone,” says Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Works and co-author of Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration — Lessons from the Second City. “So one skill that we really focus a ton on is listening. Improvisers are supremely good, active listeners. When you don’t have a script to drive the action, you have to pick up every shred of information you can, because it might be the thing that unlocks an idea for you.”

Rick Andrews, a teacher and performer at NYC’s Magnet Theatre, says if you’re not listening, “You’re missing all the cues, verbal and non-verbal, that your client is giving you. So improv forces you to be in the moment and really listen to another person.”


2. Find creativity through “yes, and…”

One of the foundational concepts in improv is “yes, and.” Simply put, improv performers will never reject what their partners say or do during a scene — they say “yes, and” to every idea and accept it as a reality of the scene. Then they build upon each other’s ideas, turn by turn, and in the process generate new, unusual, and funny content on stage.

For businesses, adopting the “yes, and” attitude can be the key to unlocking new ideas. “I think most ideas start as a bad idea with one good thing about it. Somebody adds to it, with this idea of ‘yes, and’ that improv fosters,” says Andrews. “You start to open yourself up to potential possibilities that you will never uncover if you think negatively. You can always think about why something might not work. When people flip that structure, they start to find a lot more creativity.”

“In business, we don’t always agree with our co-workers or clients, but you might be able to turn that negative into a positive, or that barrier into a win-win,” says Yorton. “If you can start first with ‘yes, and’ instead of the default setting of ‘no, but,’ it improves relationships and the amount of ideas you’re going to get.”


3. Embrace the unexpected

Most businesses fear unanticipated change, but improv equips you with the skills to be comfortable with, and adapt to, uncertainty. “It’s the given in an improv scene to have no idea what’s going to happen next,” says Clarke. ‘Getting comfortable being in the present and rolling with new information helps people be more comfortable and confident when presentations, conversations, and interviews go in a different direction than you anticipated.”


4. Take risks — mistakes, and even failures, are okay

Did you know that some of the most important and beloved inventions were created by mistake (for example: X-rays, penicillin, the pacemaker, Slinkies, Post-its, and even, yes, chocolate-chip cookies)? Improv teaches you that it’s okay to take chances and make mistakes, as long as you adjust swiftly and move on — and hey, you might even create something great out of it.

Likewise, businesses can be successful if they experiment, innovate, and aren’t afraid to fail. “Improv teaches you to be resilient in the face of failure, and be authentic when things don’t go well,” says Yorton.

At Columbia Business School, an improv workshop during orientation week provides a safe environment to take a difficult plunge. “Students get a chance to, if not fail, experience very challenging circumstances where they really have to push themselves to take some risk, go out on a limb, and ultimately to be rewarded by getting positive reinforcement,” says Michael Malone, associate dean of the MBA program at Columbia Business School. Malone says feedback to the workshop has been universally positive.

Jeff Mondoro, the business manager at the People’s Improv Theatre, has a background in both consulting and comedy, and says improv is great at changing the way people think about mistakes. “There are no mistakes in improv. That’s so often where the comedy comes from,” he says. “Whereas in a business setting, if you make a mistake, you think, ‘That’s the end of the world.’ But it’s about owning that and saying, ‘Yes, it’s just a mistake, and I’ll fix it.’”


5. Make your partner look good

Another main principle of improv is “make your partner look good.” Because collaboration and co-operation are at the heart of improv, being a good ensemble-mate is crucial. “Ensembles are about helping each other, and me being as concerned about your success as you are about mine,” says Yorton.

Paul Z. Jackson, President of the Applied Improvisation Network, explains it like so: “If you go on stage and you’re struggling for an idea, it’s the responsibility of the other players to come in and support what you’re doing by being the other part of the scene. They prop you up and help you. If we could imbue a team or organization with that, it would create so much more confidence for people to have a go at things, knowing that they’d have the support of the team.”

How does this translate to real-world business? “When you deliver a good, united front with your co-workers, a client is going to see two people on the same page, vs. two people who are bickering or saying no to each other,” says Mondoro. “As a life principle and business principle, if everyone is doing that, then everyone wins.”


6. Know how to craft a compelling story

“Improv feeds in very much to the importance of storytelling,” says Malone. “For a leader to be able to put a story together — one that their direct reports will buy into and interpret on their own — that’s the difference between a manager and a leader. Real leaders are able to construct those narratives in such a way that they can get folks to buy in.”

Now more than ever, business leaders need to be agile thinkers, strong communicators, and effective collaborators, and Improv is a safe, fun, and creative way to foster these skills. So the next time you’re in a meeting, try to think “yes, and” — you might be surprised at what comes out of it.