The most important skill needed in improv is listening. To build a scene or narrative with someone, you have to listen to the "offers," or building blocks, fellow participants (called "players") are giving you and incorporate those elements into your response, no matter how surreal or incongruous they might seem. Someone who is not listening, or trying to deliver their own jokes, cuts off the scene.
Translated into a business context, listening skills are vital to a business-partnering approach. Only by listening can you understand the other person's goals and objectives, and from there help them make decisions and warn them of any pitfalls.
Just like in an improv sketch, the more we can link what we say to what others say, the better. In a business context, this approach helps persuade, influence, and build rapport.
You can immediately see its potential as a development tool and afterwards, even use some of these brand new improv skills every day in your professional life. Participating in an improv workshop with colleagues helps you read and understand their responses to situations. Nonverbal clues such as posture, facial expressions, and the amount of eye contact can speak volumes. If you are going down a line in a sketch that the rest of the group isn't ready for, or receptive to, you'll see that in their body language.
The "one-sentence story" exercise provides similar clues. Each participant contributes a single sentence in turn, with the aim of building a coherent narrative. The story gets pretty crazy, and you can see the next person in line struggling to think of what their sentence is going to be.
This experience helps in meetings later on. You may see other participants' discomfort with the direction of the conversation and make suggestions as to where to take it next. Participants in a meeting may be from several different parts of your organization. If, as a team, you have practiced some improv, you have a better ability to read that individual. It's just a more effective way to collaborate if you understand what the other person is thinking.
COMMUNICATING INSIGHT EFFECTIVELY
A lot of professionals get to a certain position where they need to deliver information, tell stories, engage with people, and use their technical knowledge to convince them "this is what we should do."
Being comfortable speaking in public, quick on your feet, all those drills that you do in improv can help all of them build up soft skills.
Improv helps build those skills, as well as ease with situations you're not prepared for — whether an impromptu conversation in the corridor or water cooler, or an unexpected question after a presentation. Practice helps you be in the right state to cope with the unexpected and come across as credible, rather than panic-stricken.
It also helps explore questions such as, "How do we bring perspective together with other departments' goals and objectives?" and "How do we make business a "˜yes, and' function?"
'YES, AND ... '
The most valuable benefit of the improv mindset for business is the principle of "yes, and ... ". In an improv scene, you accept the idea, or "offer" made to you by your counterpart, which might be: "Let's go to the beach." And you add to it by saying, "Yes, and we can bring my new pet unicorn. He'd love to see the sea." The important thing is that you accept the proposal and then contribute another element to help flesh out the idea and move the story on.
If you're having a conversation with a client and they ask you to do something impossible and they want you to do it by Tuesday, the best option is to start your response with a "yes, and." Say, "Yes, and perhaps we can review the scope of that request to make sure we can bring it in on time." Saying, "No, that's not something we can do," shuts down the conversation. ˜Yes, and' keeps building on it.
A workshop can also serve as a team-building activity. Improv is about collaboration, rather than competition. You look good by making others look good. Everyone, regardless of their status back in the office, contributes suggestions and ideas and finds it rewarding to see them taken up. Teams gain a sense of pride from developing a narrative together. While there is no pressure to be funny, it often turns out that way, and laughter is unifying. Teams often haven't had much opportunity to laugh together before.
Improv also promotes creative thinking and helps silence participants' inner critics. Improv games and techniques help companies find solutions to challenges they are facing. In improv, bad ideas are just bridges to good ideas. No ideas lead to nothing.
THE BUSINESS SCHOOL PERSPECTIVE
Business schools, such as Ashridge Executive Education and Cass Business School in the UK, and Duke University and Stanford University in the US, are including improv on their curriculum to help future leaders cope with a rapidly changing environment.
Some describe improv as the 21st century technology because it enables one to be flexible and adaptable, to spot opportunities, and to let go of what isn't working.
To become a good improviser, you need to let go of the fear of being seen as mad, bad, or wrong. This idea of, "What will people think of me if I say X" is a big block for people in business. But some of the ideas that have seemed mad or wrong are the ones that change the world.
Listening, exploring ideas and giving them a chance, and accepting offers from people around you all help people deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.
Businesses need budgets, deadlines, and a strategy, but there's got to be some flexibility within that so you can take up any opportunities that arise. You need to make a plan but hold it lightly. In improv you might have a set idea of where the story should go, but then you have to discard most of that as soon as you hear what the person before you has to say. You hold the idea lightly and don't feel defeated because what you thought was a [scene in a] book shop has suddenly turned into a tailor's, because actually there's something interesting about the tailor's scenario.
"I thought this meeting was about cuts, and it turns out we are going to talk about investments." The improviser is not panic-stricken because he or she knows that the best thing to do is be with the other person, physically and emotionally. What is he or she saying to me? How can we look for a win-win? And the more we can link what we say to what they say, the better.
The Ashridge class focuses on "saying yes to the mess". Too often in a conversation about strategy or creativity, people feel they have to pick one idea to run with, and decide too early. When you start an improv scene, many elements are in play. It's a little unfocused. In either context, the focus eventually gets defined, but that period of exploration or experimentation is vital; it lets you know what you eventually decide on is solid.
Ashridge lecturers also talk about a leader being in charge, not in control. Too often people think the leader should know everything and tell everyone what to do. But a really great leader, who is looking to the future and being innovative, knows that sometimes their job is to ask the right questions: providing staff with minimal structure and maximum autonomy.
Reasons to embrace improv:
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