In what feels like a lifetime ago, I was an acting student in New York City and had the immense honor of working with some of today’s brightest improvisation actors and teachers. While the bright lights of the stage have faded and my starring roles are now focused on achieving success at a Los Angeles Public Relations agency, I oftentimes remark that I use theater skills day in and day out. Whether in hearing true motivations of my clients, reading the body language of my colleagues, communicating with clear intention, and driving for collaboration, my foundation of improvisation remains a heavily relied upon tool.
When one thinks of improvisation, funny quips and groan-inducing one-liners seem a far cry from the day-to-day duties of life in corporate America, or in my case food and beverage PR. So why then are we seeing companies adopt improvisation workshops and training into their employee growth programs? By understanding the fundamentals of the entertainment form, we begin to see the importance of transferring these skill sets to the boardroom and beyond.
Here are a few of my favorite effective methods garnered from improvisation:
- A Lesson in Listening
Improvisation is long free-form scenes preformed without rehearsals or scripts. Stories are created in real-time through actors presenting offers that build towards a strong conclusion for all involved. If an actor is disengaged and only focuses on delivering their own jokes or intention without understanding the direction presented by others, the scene immediately halts.
The same can be said for business interactions and relationships. Only by listening intently can one identify the key drivers for each client resulting in collaborative results. Forgoing the skill of connecting our responses to what our business partners propose can damage rapport and lessen strategic influence, whether solution-based or advising on potential pitfalls. Build upon each proposition and you will avoid “we are at a standstill” interferences.
- A Guide to Subconscious Signals
Another important skill is reading body language. In improvisation, the actors tap into the comfort level of their fellow players through attention to non-verbal cues. An individual with arms crossed, downcast eyes, fidgeting ticks indicates an inability to participate. By recognizing those physical signs, improvisers can strengthen leading statements and reengage the individual with the conversation at hand through a new direction or clarification of a former statement.
Transferring these skills to business: when sensing discomfort, a quick pivot in the direction of the discussion seamlessly shows an innate understanding of what a client may be thinking and provides an opportunity to address triggers or stressors that impact final decisions. While everyone has unique nonverbal communication methods, understanding basic indicators fortifies the feeling of being on the same page as a business partner and builds a transparent relationship.
- A Course on Confidence
Speaking in public is one of the top fears for most. While the saying “practice makes perfect” is very true, opportunities for business professionals to hone this skill in safe, non-judgmental environments are few and far between. Here is where improv can help.
Beyond the experience of performing in front of strangers with confidence, improv also allows individuals to strengthen the ability to “think on their feet” and gain comfort when approached with unexpected conversations without losing credibility. These “soft skills” are integral in business situations where one needs to engage with a new client unfamiliar with the industry and convince them of value, among many other examples.
- The Power of Yes
Ask any improviser to define the key to success on stage and they will often call out the “yes, and…” mentality. A defining pillar of this stagecraft is the inability to say no and instead positively contribute to any statement given. For example, an actor may state “Let’s go on a trip to Europe” and the team player would respond with “Yes, and let’s time the trip so my Romanian grandmother can be our tour guide.” If the team player had responded with “No, I can’t go because my grandmother from Romania is in town” the scene would have halted resulting in the need to change subjects.
Now by saying “yes” to all situations in business, one can find themselves in a bit of a pickle, yet the essence of this method is still very much applicable. For example, a client may ask to reach a KPI in an unreasonable amount of time. Instead of saying “No, that is not possible” one might switch directions and say “Yes, we agree that KPI is vital, and let’s discuss potential outcomes given the timeline in place.” By avoiding a complete denial of the request and offering a collaborative next step, the client feels in control of the initial request while also gaining further understanding of the back-end process to achieve.
Beyond the items listed above, there are many more valuable lessons imparted through improvisation such as team building, creativity, and critical thinking. To explore further ways to integrate these skill sets many “Improv For Business” organizations are available to host onsite workshops, along with resident companies offering classes in most major metropolitan cities.
We wish you much success in your journey exploring the world of improvisation!