Improvisation in the Corporate Space

Scriven Bernard March 3, 2016 About YourCause

Photo Courtesy of Allie Trimboli

In the last several years, the corporate space has increased its representation in improvisational comedy. Many employers send their employees to improv classes so that they can improve their public speaking skills, learn to think on their feet, and discover more efficient approaches to interpersonal communication.

Fifteen months ago, in the midst of one of those life improvement kicks that tend to fizzle out after a month, I signed up for improv classes at a local theater. The thought of performing in front of a live audience without a script absolutely terrified me. On my way to the first class, I even called my brother in a sweaty panic so he could talk me out of fleeing the country.

But, I powered through the fear and graduated from the theater’s program. Since then, improv has helped me to make so many great changes in my life. I loved it so much that I signed up to be a teacher’s assistant during an evening class. I spend a significant amount of time in each class thinking, “Wow, I wish I could teach this stuff to everyone else in my life, including all of the people I work with.”

So, here’s my chance to spread that knowledge! I’ve listed five important lessons so that you, too, can benefit from improv’s teachings in a corporate setting:

  1. Agree. Agreement is not always about saying “yes.” Agreement is also defined as “accordance in opinion or feeling.” Even if an idea is “bad” on the surface, the person who submitted it invested time and thought to provide the information. Acknowledge that effort by matching his or her passion for the concept. The idea is important to this person, so respect that. Show your support by considering all parts of an idea, and add your own information to improve it.
  2. Establish your framework. Improv scenes are confusing to audiences if the audience cannot determine who the characters are, where they are, or why they are there. The same confusion exists in meetings or on projects when the participants do not properly prepare or cannot identify the immediate goals of the project. Choose to know who is involved on a project or call, research the topic as thoroughly as you can, and bring questions or answers with you. Present your information clearly and concisely. Take those meetings that feel like elementary-school zoo field trips and give them efficiency and organization with a solid framework.
  3. Bring it back to the relationship. Improv scenes sometimes trail off into absurdity and triviality. This can also happen in workplace interactions. To fix a derailed improv scene, we reset ourselves by focusing on our relationship with the other character. In a corporate setting, when pressure and tension build within a particular project, you may notice that the teams involved are focusing too much on the details and what-ifs of a project. The conversation spirals into a state where ideas cannot easily progress. In these moments, take a step back to remember how and why you formed your relationship with this coworker or business partner. Then take steps to refresh and strengthen that relationship, reminding the other party of how and why you value the relationship. This can help everyone involved to see the big-picture goals of the project, which sparks insight when readdressing the project later.
  4. Know the “Why?” This is the most important question in improv (and all of life, really). Improv scenes lose steam if we do not know what drives the characters’ actions. When you make decisions or present ideas to your team or to a client, know your exact reasoning and what drove you to your conclusion. When you consider a relationship with a contact, remember exactly why it is important to you for the colleague to have a successful program. If a deadline changes, make sure there is a clear, reasonable explanation and convey that to your contacts. Another important “Why?” to consider is the reason for your involvement in the industry. Know what drives your passions. Consistently reminding yourself and others of this drive can fuel inspiration for tackling difficult projects.
  5. Listen and respond honestly. We tend to overestimate our own abilities to listen well to others. I, for one, have occasionally caught myself staring right at someone as they speak but dreaming of the candy bowl on our CFO’s desk. Listening involves hearing the information, applying context, picking up nonverbal cues, and rendering the information in our minds so that we can formulate responses and predict next steps. In order to respond with information, you must first listen with your full attention. Then, respond honestly. Transparency makes life easier. Being honest and immediately labeling the items most likely to hinder a project’s development let you cut directly to the meat of the conversation and prevent damage to the relationship further down the line.
  6. Have fun! This seems easier to do when you’re performing on a stage in front of people than it is in a crowded meeting with a company’s C-level executives. But, don’t let little opportunities for fun slip by. People want to have fun. Have a good attitude and find the fun when it presents itself, and others will follow suit. Never be afraid to laugh.

Big changes start as simple concepts. Adopt these lessons one at a time, and you will notice positive changes. There are days that I barely feel qualified to call myself an adult, but overall I’ve made clear improvement in efficiency, productivity, and my general attitude. Plus, these ideas are simple to implement. Add them to your to-do list and you will have a few items to check off in no time at all. Savor the easy wins.