EVERYTHING I Need to Know about BUSINESS I Learned from IMPROV

by | Jul 29, 2015 | Arts & Letters, Forty-two | 0 comments

Feature image, “Open Mic” by Ed Schipul.

I pranked my audience when I presented a session on website usability at the Vermont / New Hampshire Marketing Group conference a few years ago. It was a small thing. To illustrate a point about how it *feels* from their users’ perspective when pages take too long to load I made a show of taking a phone call in the middle of my talk. For the 8 seconds that I “chatted” on my phone —  the amount of time it takes for a majority of users to abandon a slow-loading web page — I played cheesy elevator music. (Girl from Ipanema. Totes my jam.)

Reactions to the gag varied. The vast majority of folks in the room got the joke — and, I think, the point. Some number were visibly offended I’d be so rude as to actually take a call when I was in the middle of presenting in front of the hundred or so assembled business folk. I think two walked out. (By my count I had an abandonment rate of less than 2%, so it was a pretty good day!)

In the hallway afterward I overheard one conference-goer to another: “I think he used to be an actor, or something.”

Or something.

For some years I co-directed of an ensemble of improvisational actors. We performed anywhere we could find an audience, but mostly at Renaissance Fairs and Festivals. We took our improvisation both to the stage and to the lanes between, playing the roles of Commedia dell’arte stage performers, in-character and out — a many-layered trifle of performance.

You learn a lot about acting when you’re performing off-the-cuff, in-the-round, and surrounded by folks armed with swords and halberds. You learn still more about human behavior, about imagination, and trust, and preparation. And — while I know I’m not the first to draw correlations between the lessons of improv acting and business — I’ve also put these principles into practice by teaching improv workshops for business leaders.

Listen to Me. Jonathan Powell (www.flickr.com/photos/metrojp/92038203/)

Listen to Me by Jonathan Powell (www.flickr.com/photos/metrojp/92038203/)

Listen. Actively. With your full attention.

Well, sure, you say. Of course. I make a point to actively listen. Of course you do. That’s why you’re so good at remembering names, right? Because when you’re introduced to somebody new you’re giving them your entire attention and learning one or two things that makes them unique and remarkable people (her name is Barbra and she sings pretty well and you don’t even notice her nose if you’re looking head-on) and you’re totally *not* rehearsing what you’re going to say when it’s your turn to introduce yourself, right?


It’s okay. It runs counter to our nature, really, to suspend time — to be still and quiet and engaged while someone else is speaking — and not to have our mind wander to that phone call we’ve been waiting for or that — wait, was that a buzz? — did your pocket just vibrate? But here’s the deal: when you’re thinking about your next move or planning what you’re going to say when your turn comes ‘round you’re going to miss what’s happening right now, and what’s happening right now is what you need to be able to respond to because it might just surprise you. Which is almost always awesome if you’re paying attention. And really frustrating if you’re not.

– Be present. Be in the moment.
– Be still. Quiet your mind, and your body.
– Be open. Open mind, open posture.
– Be willing and ready recognize your moment to…

“Yes and No” by Abhi.

Say, “Yes, and…”  Which is to say, accept what’s been offered to you, and build on it.

Acceptance — agreeing to what is offered to you in a scene — is a cornerstone of improvisational acting. Nothing interesting happens in a scene where actors simply deny each others’ realities. That sort of scene doesn’t even qualify as conflict, really; it’s just dull. It leads nowhere and may seemingly never end.

Conversations around the office conference table frequently follow a similar path: little agreement, and less progress. More, folks making honest and open-hearted suggestions only to have those efforts repeatedly shot down will eventually shut down, keeping their unorthodox points of view to themselves.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Even an idea that stinks on ice may have, at its core, something that’s got merit. Dig for it. Accept what’s offered and build on it — add new information: new parameters, a perspective on constraints, a wee bit of history — and improve it.

“I’ve called this meeting because we need to figure out new ways to improve our revenue. Our fission reactors aren’t exactly flying off the shelf these days…”

“Let’s hold a bake sale!”

“Say, I like that idea, Smith. We’d need to sell roughly… well, about four billion cookies to cover our revenue gap. I tell you what, though… with our reactors we certainly have enough heat to power a *lot* of ovens. I wonder what we could do with that?”

It’s challenging to open yourself to new ideas, new approaches, and contrary points of view… it just might knock you out of your comfort zone. Saying “Yes!” requires practice.

– Accept, and add.
– Build on the foundations that others have laid out.
– Don’t shut others down or invalidate their efforts, but build on them, instead. This may require you to…

Take risks. You’re going to have some failures. That’s more than okay… it’s awesome!

Failure means you’re taking chances and working at your limits, which implies you’re stretching and growing. The path to success is strewn with failures! (Feel free to mentally insert all the stories and anecdotes you’ve heard about Edison and the light bulb. Go ahead. I’ll wait…)

When you get right down to the bone of it, the issue isn’t failure — it’s the fear of failure. We have, according to Viola Spolin, one of  improv’s most influential originators, been conditioned to associate approval with success, and disapproval with failure. It’s the fear of disapproval that makes us stumble. What if you could approach your improv — and your work — with no fear?

Well, you can! To begin with, there’s probably nobody who’s going to be harder on you than, well… you. So start with giving yourself a break when something doesn’t go as planned.

– Take chances.
– Give yourself a break.
– Have fun. And be supportive of others’ taking risks…

Make your counterparts look good, smart, funny.

It’s a generous actor who uses every  opportunity to make her partner look good. Smart. Funny. Clever. It’s a selfless actor who delivers the masterful “give” that allows her partner to get the big laugh. Conversely, it’s easy to spot the guy who has a punchline in search of a setup — you frequently find them skulking about the edges of the action, anticipating the moment that will allow them to jump in with a scene-stealing “save”. Sometimes they get a chance to totally spike the ball. And sometimes that moment never comes and the whole scene is a diminished and hollow echo of what it might have been.

Generosity makes for a great ensemble. Knowing your partners have got your back allows you to take risks you might otherwise shrink from. And if everybody’s focusing on being the best possible supporting actor, then — almost magically — everybody’s a star.

How can you be a generous partner? The answer is simple, and by now, familiar:

– Listen.
– Accept, and add.
– Take risks. Taking risks is easy when you know your partners have your back.

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