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Unprepared, don’t care: applying improv to the workplace

27 September 2017   |   Caren Spigland

As a writer and creative director by profession, preparing, rewriting, editing, critiquing, proofing, and second-guessing are what I do. And what I know.

By contrast, the practice of improv comedy is like writing with no brief, no outline, no cynicism, and especially—no filter. It’s like posting a selfie with no makeup on. It’s a come-as-you-are party. It’s doing that presentation in your underwear. It’s—okay, you get it.

Practice “Yes, and”

No article on the benefits of improv would be without a discussion of its most fundamental principle, “Yes, and.” (Yes, improv has a tagline!) All this means is that you should always agree with your scene partner (“Yes”), and add something to what was stated (“and”).

I first encountered the power of “Yes” in Level 1 classes at Second City. We’d go around a circle making random statements like “The cow is purple.” No matter what we said, everyone would agree and clap enthusiastically. Seems silly, but it felt great to be validated.

In an office setting, when people feel their ideas are always welcome, they are more likely to contribute and less likely to be discouraged. Consider Nordic countries, which according to the 2017 Bloomberg Index, lead in innovation. Due to social programs that ensure job security, businesses in these countries experience less rivalry and greater collaboration. In Sweden, share your crazy idea for free music streaming over the Internet (aka, Spotify), and you will be less likely to be shot down, cut off, upstaged, or snowblown.

So what’s with the “and”? In an improv scene, if you just agree and don’t add, the scene dies. It’s like saying “yes” after someone says, “I love you.”  But by building on what someone has just said, you are returning a favor, collaborating in the creation of something bigger than you both.

Any art director or copywriter knows what this is like. Thinking of ideas on your own can work—but something magical happens when you collaborate with a partner you trust. Ideas multiply exponentially and go places you never thought possible.

Watch their backs

In improv, we always have our partners’ backs. That means we always make our partners look good. If we make someone look bad, it destroys the show and we all lose.

In an agency, if we make a colleague look bad in front of a client, we all stand to lose.

What does having everyone’s back mean in the workplace? For one, it means if someone else’s idea or proposal moves forward and yours does not, your life is not over. You can add to that idea, help sell that idea, embrace that idea like it is your own. And guess what? Support everybody and other people’s success becomes yours, too. If you have every horse in the race, you can’t fail.

But what if their ideas are crappy? We all have bad days. If that’s the case, it’s up to you to make your colleagues look good and fashion those grains into pearls. In improv scenes, you may not always have an experienced scene partner. You may have a scene partner who denies what you say:

“I’m not Michelle. I’m Princess Leia.”

If that’s the case, you can respond with, “Don’t you think you’re taking this cosplay thing too seriously?”

Just an example of how to turn a mistake into a gift.

Make mistakes and carry on

Unless you’re doing a flashback to a Vietnam scene, improv is not about looking back. Business managers can waste a lot of time and energy dwelling on past mistakes, doing CYA, and casting blame. This leads to a culture where everyone is afraid to make mistakes, no one takes risks, and everyone’s sore from craning back their necks.

Good leaders learn from mistakes and move on. They may even profit from those mistakes. As it so happens, Slinky, Super Glue, and Caesar Salad were all “happy accidents.”

 Present with presence

Perhaps the biggest reason many ad people take improv is to get better at and more comfortable with presenting and speaking off the cuff.

In fact, improv will help you present more expressively. You are encouraged to play characters who have, well, character. And emotions. So, while, back at the agency, you may be great at making rational arguments for your rational ideas based on rational research, improv teaches you to use emotion and personality to connect with your audience.

It will also help you think on your feet, an important skill in today’s ever-changing marketing climate. “Thanks for letting us know you’ve redirected your target. In that case, we can give that talking pancreas a beard.”

Lastly, improv can really help ease those public speaking jitters. At the end of just 3 or 4 sessions at your local comedy school, improv students take to the stage, providing a safe environment in which to screw up. After showing up unprepared, trying to get laughs from an audience in a theater named after someone like Chris Farley, all of a sudden, presenting to that client doesn’t seem so bad.

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About the Author

Caren Spigland is an Associate Creative Director of Copy at Abelson Taylor. Prior to AT, she worked at shops like JWT, where she wrote her 1st Super Bowl spot, and BBDO, where she “wrote” her 1st no-copy ad and assisted in the death of the Wrigley’s Gum jingle.