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7 Career Lessons I Learned from Studying Improv

Improvised comedy is when a cast makes up scenes on the spot based on audience suggestions, much like the U.K. and U.S. television show, Whose Line is it Anyway. I’d been going to a local improv group for years, and when they invited me to take their Introduction to Improv class I jumped on the chance. I had a blast! And while I expected I’d have fun, I didn’t expect to learn lessons that would advance my career—and yours.

Improvised comedy is when a cast makes up scenes on the spot based on audience suggestions, much like the U.K. and U.S. television show, Whose Line is it Anyway. I’d been going to a local improv group for years, and when they invited me to take their Introduction to Improv class I jumped on the chance. I had a blast!

And while I expected I’d have fun, I didn’t expect to learn lessons that would advance my career—and yours.

Yes, and…

The first law of improv comedy is, “Yes, and…”, meaning you take whatever your partner gives you “out of the blue” and add to it. For example, if a cast member mimes balancing on a tightrope saying, “Daddy, I’m scared!”, you would accept that premise and add to it, such as pointing to the imaginary water below and replying, “Be careful, Billy—those alligators look hungry!

By doing “Yes, and”, you move the story forward, creating an experience that builds one line to the next. It’s fun for you, your castmate, and the audience.

The opposite of “Yes, and” would be replying with a completely non-sequitur story line, or worse—flat out contradicting your partner. Both actions stop the forward motion of the story and create a clash of wills, which isn’t fun for either the performers or the audience.

Keep this in mind the next time you are in a meeting. Observe how you react to others’ ideas, and how they react to yours. Get in the habit of “Yes, and”ing positive suggestions and see if your group gets more done—and has more fun in the processes.

Commit!

The next lesson I learned is no matter what you do, really commit to it. If you step forward and offer a line timidly, it will fall flat and drag down the energy of the performance. Even if what you say or do isn’t the funniest or smartest choice, by really committing to the action, really owning the performance and going for it with as much energy and enthusiasm as you can muster—the audience will appreciate you taking a risk, even cheer you on.

So the next time you are interviewing for a job, pitching an idea to management, or speaking at an event, be bold. Own your performance.

Seize the opportunity!

Turn Off Your Censor

When I mentioned to friends that I was studying improv, many stated that they could never think fast enough to do improv. What’s interesting is that the first thing you learn in improv is to not think, but just be in the moment and let your creative juices flow.

Your mind exists to keep you safe. Performing in front of a group is anything but “safe,” so your mind wants to sensor what you think, what you do, what you say. And while such censorship is absolutely vital to avoiding hot stoves and speeding cards, it works against you when performing (at work, at networking events, at conferences). If you are thinking, “Is this right? Will I look stupid? Will this be funny?”, your attention is in your head, not on the person or people with whom you are speaking.

No matter where you are, just be there—in mind, body, and spirit.

Turning off (or at least ignoring) your mental censor may seem difficult if not impossible at first, but it does get easier with practice.

Really Listen

Have you ever had a conversation in which you could tell the other person was thinking more about what they are going to say next than listening to what you were saying?

If you are actively thinking, then you are not actively listening. You need to listen to your spouse/coworker/castmate in order to effectively “Yes, and…”.

Want to get more done, make more money, have a calmer life?

Think less, listen more.

Take a Stand

Another lesson I learned in improv class is that you can change your whole demeanor and (more importantly) others’ perception of you by leading with a body part.

Try this: Stick your chin forward and walk around the room. Did you adopt a regal bearing, perhaps channeling Thurston Howell or Lovey, the rich couple on the U.S. television show Gilligan's Island?

Now lower your head and move around the room. Did you shuffle along like an old person with a walker, or charge forward like a defensive lineman in U.S. football?

When I’m doing public speaking gigs, I’m animated and enthusiastic. I run around the room throwing candy to attendees who participate. I command positive attention.

In meetings where I’m pitching my company’s staffing services to a potential client, I sit tall in my chair, leaning forward as I enthusiastically explain how I can help the client with the problems they are facing—and (oh, by the way) showing why I’m worth every dime of the fees I charge.

However, if I’m in a meeting where I’m not the star of the show, I sit conservatively back in my chair, say little if anything, and let the other person enjoy the limelight.

How do you want to present yourself to the world: loud and brash, or quiet and reserved?

Do you want to command the spotlight, or work quietly behind the scenes?

All of the above?

Lead with the appropriate body part.

Be a Gracious Follower

This lesson applies to work, home, and social life: Be a gracious follower.

At the beginning of the first class, the instructor laid down only two rules: “Have fun” (more on this in a bit) and “Be supportive.”

Ignoring your censor and really committing to action is scary, so you need to create a safe space in which you and your fellow students can play. At the start of the course, some students were reluctant to state their opinions, others hesitant to go first, and yet others struggled to really commit to their performance. So I learned (was reminded of) the importance of not be impatient and letting other people work on whatever they need to work on—especially in lessons that called for practicing a skill I was already fairly good at.

I, in turn, discovered the skills I’m not good at—most notably, giving up control and letting others lead.

One of the “downsides” to being a business owner is that you are used to being in control, making plans, delegating tasks. You get used to being the captain, not the crew. In class I found I often jumped right in and started first, acting out my ideas, setting the scene the way I wanted it to go. So when I noticed some students weren’t getting as much practice as us Type A personalities, I began to purposely not initiate every action, to give my fellow students opportunities to take control and start the scene.

But old habits die hard. In an exercise in which a classmate and I were to create a scene based on the suggestion “subway,” I immediately grabbed an imaginary support bar and start bouncing like I was in the New York City subway. But before I could say anything, my partner in the sketch said, “Can I get extra mayo on my sandwich?”

He didn’t see me miming that I was in a subway and went in a completely different direction: ordering a Subway sandwich.

This one scene was a microcosm of everything I needed to practice: I was in my head planning what I was going to do, not looking at my partner, not listening, not following the basic rules of improv.

So I abandoned what I was going to do and “Yes, and”ed off his sandwich theme.

I learned a lot that day.

By the way, I shared this story with an instructor who teaches the advanced improv class, and she offered that it’s possible to “Yes, and” off of both ideas: I could have said something like, “Hey buddy, this is the McDonald’s car! The Subway car is two cars back. You want super-size fries with your Happy Meal?”

Brilliant!

This is why I take classes: to learn from the pros.

So now I practice really listening to my partners (in work, in class, in life), and letting them lead.

What do you need to practice?

Play Like a Five Year Old

Remember, the first class ground rule was: “Have fun!” 

At the beginning of the first class, my instructor offered this observation: Have you ever watched five year olds play? They run around without a care in the world, pretending to be super heroes, royalty, famous movie characters. They don’t ask themselves, “What will people think?”, “Will I look stupid in this costume?”, or any other self-censoring criticism. They just play and have fun.

The point he was trying to make finally became real by the end of the last class. As I went through the program, I learned to not care about what others might think if I tried something that didn’t quite work. I learned to really commit to my performance, both on stage and off. I learned to ignore my censor, to really listen to my castmates, to have fun.

Want more out of your life?

Turn off your censor.

Play like a five year old.

Take an improv class!

About the Author

Jack Molisani is an STC Fellow and the president of ProSpring Technical Staffing. He also produces the LavaCon Conference on Content Strategy and User Experience, and is the author of Be the Captain of Your Career: A New Approach to Career Planning and Advancement, available on Amazon.com or in a bookstore near you.

You can reach jack at: Jack@ProspringStaffing.com

Follow Jack on Twitter: @JackMolisani and @BeTheCaptain

And occasionally see Jack guest perform with Mad Cowford Improv Comedy www.madcowford.com

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