Picture yourself in a group setting, maybe at a party or business function. You chime-in to the conversation with a line so funny, so perfect, so well-timed that the group erupts with laughter; maybe someone even slaps your arm in approval or sheds a tear laughing (when you’re really lucky). And you stand there and soak in your verbal victory. Then you replay it in your head a few times before you go to bed, and relish your moment of brilliant comedy.
I love those moments. So much so that I decided to become skilled at them: I signed up for improv comedy classes.
But what I got out of these classes was much more than a couple of one-liners for parties. Improv turned out to be great for my company and personal well-being. Here are those eight business lessons improv taught me:
1. Laugh at yourself.
The most obvious revelation I had was that I can look like a complete clown in front of people and still laugh at myself. This realization was the first time that I understood I didn't have to constantly worry about what other people were thinking. The reason: My brain lacked the capacity to worry and simultaneously come up with content on the fly. And that was okay. When I finally let go of the worrying, I found it really therapeutic to let go of all professionalism as well, and just let loose, doing whatever comes to mind first.
2. Just "go with it."
Improv is done in groups that typically have two or more people. There’s usually no time to talk beforehand and figure out who’s going to say what, and when. So, you really have to be in tune with your partners. If one of them suddenly puts on his astronaut helmet and tells you to buckle up for that mission to space, you can’t be like, “Wait, I wanted to be cowboys in the wild West.” Instead, you'd better find your imaginary astronaut helmet, buckle up and communicate with the extraterrestrials you’re about to visit.
3. Build off one another.
One exercise we learned in class is called “Yes. . . and.” In this exercise, your partner has to make a statement like, “We should get our eyebrows waxed.” You then reply with, “Yes, we should get our eyebrows waxed, and we should also get spray tans while we’re at the salon.” You have to agree with what your partner has said and then add to it. You aren't allowed to change, disagree, argue with your partner or say, “but.”
Everything has to be positive and build off the last comment. In my company, sometimes my first instinct is to look for the problem or reason why we shouldn’t do what someone suggests. But the improv exercise I just described taught me to be more open to other people’s ideas and build off them instead of shutting then down.
4. Don’t plan too far ahead.
Sometimes, we’d get a situation such as, “You’ve just arrived in Disney World. . . Go!” And in my mind, I’m already planning to be a 5-year-old girl that’s going to beg her dad for a Mickey Mouse hat and an ice cream cone. But then one of my partners points over to me and says, “Hey look, it’s Princess Ariel. . . and she’s missing her shells!”
And then I’m caught off guard and trying to think what a mermaid would do in this situation. Instead of planning ahead, I should have been tuned in to the group and playing off their ideas. In my business life, it’s good to plan for the future. But sometimes I’m too busy planning to be "present" for what’s happening right now.
5. Keep it simple.
The skits that turned out the best were the simple ones: kids being home-schooled, or a couple on their first date, or an ice cream truck coming into the neighborhood. The ones that usually prompted forced applause were the ones that just got straight-up crazy: like Winnie the Pooh running a meth lab, or a girl falling off a cruise ship, or a reality TV show about dogs wanting to be cats.
It was the simple ideas and easy stories that were the most relatable and easy for the audience to understand. With so much technology and innovation nowadays, it’s easy to think that simple ideas aren’t good enough for your business. But improv reminded me that sometimes "simple" is the answer.
6. Be comfortable with no script.
When I give keynotes, I don’t use note cards or a script, but I have a general idea of what I’m about to say. Along the way, I’ve found that the times I’ve done Q&A with the audience or wandered “off script” for a bit felt much more natural and drew a greater response from the audience.
With improv, there’s never a script. And sometimes you’re not sure what’s about to come out of your mouth (which can be a scary thing). But that looseness helped me become more relaxed and natural on stage. Now, I’m less afraid to diverge from my “go-to” talking points when that's necessary.
7. Be confident.
Improv proved to me that it’s not always about what you say but how you say it. You can have the funniest line in your head, but if your voice is quiet and shaky when you say it, it won’t deliver like it should. The opposite is also true. You could say something that’s mildly funny, but if you say it with confidence and the right tone, you can make the room shake. When I’m on stage or just speaking at meetings or networking events, I try to focus on my posture and delivery and not just what I’m saying.
8. Don’t stop playing.
Taking improv was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I didn’t do it with anyone I knew. But I had more fun in a room full of strangers playing games like zip, zap zoom or pretending to be NBA players before the finals than I have in a long time. As we grow older, the ability to be “silly” or let go of judgment floats further and further away. Improv reminded me of the therapy that results from just playing around and laughing, without any accompanying worry about what you "look" like to the rest of the world.