How learning the canons of improv comedy can sharpen your networking and communication skills
Chicago has long been recognized as a hotbed of comedic talent. Theatres such as the Second City, iO(formerly known as the ImprovOlympic) and the Annoyance turn out writers and performers by the dozen, but not all students going through the training program are pursuing a career in the comedy arts. Some are simple honing their business skills by becoming better listeners, speakers and team builders. My own improv classes at iO and Second City have been peppered with doctors, lawyers, salesmen, journalists, PR professionals, vice presidents and more—all of whom are looking to grow their savvy in what some might consider an unorthodox, yet highly effective, business method. Some are looking to gain confidence. For others, it’s all about stimulating their inner creativity and improving their leadership skills.
Take Jen D, a publicist (and Cision client) in downtown Chicago who has taken classes at both iO and Second City. When asked about the core rules of improv that she’s been able to apply to her relationships with colleagues and clients, Jen credits the classic “Yes, and” standard. This rule establishes that regardless of what the question is, the answer is yes, which means that players accept the reality of the scene and build upon it. In some cases the answer may be a literal “no,” but only in the context where that answer follows the reality already established. For example, if someone posed the question “Is Timmy home from school yet?” the answer could be, “Nope, Timmy was devoured by a pack of wild dogs this afternoon.” You would not want to break the reality of the situation by answering “Who the devil is Timmy?” This concept not only creates more interesting scenes, but applying this mentality to client and colleague relationships fosters a sense of cooperation even under the stress of troubleshooting.
“The best way to make people feel at ease and to quickly engage new acquaintances in business and your personal life is to learn how to ‘yes and’ your way through conversations,” Jen says. “Once you practice it for a while, it becomes a natural way of interacting with people. Besides the benefit to your business and interpersonal skills, it’s a lot of fun, you’ll meet new people, and have a great time.”
Charna Halpern is another strong believer that improv training can be life-changing in the workplace. She is the founder of iO, which has turned out a roster of stars including the likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert and Mike Myers. The theatre’s corporate workshop program was created to demonstrate how participation in the basic concepts of improvisation can directly apply to business situations. The workshop trains students in the areas of effective collaboration and group problem solving, listening to the essence and true meanings behind words, enhancing focus, and trusting instincts. “We show the power of saying yes, as well as how to use the skills of agreement to create a positive work environment and enhance creativity,” Halpern says. “Once you have people working together, truly listening and realizing that the only way to look good is to make each other look good—any business will soar. Their employees will be happy and be more apt to contribute because they will feel confident that their ideas will at least be heard. These workshops are also tailored to the specific needs of the client so we can handle anything from ice breakers for new hires, all the way to problem solving, brain storming or recreating the corporate image.”
If you’re still doubting the value that improv comedy can deliver to your business model, look no further than the team of physicists working for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. Halpern flew to Switzerland in September 2008 to teach these scientists the specific skills needed to explain their particle collider project to the public and enhance their internal trouble-shooting abilities. Check out this The Wall Street Journal article about Halpern’s work with CERN.
The Second City follows a related school of thought, driving home that “bottom lines and punch lines are more related than you think.” Their training program and corporate workshops also emphasize the value of using humor to bring truth and perspective to business relationships—a key skill that can often be passed over while slaving away on that MBA. I can wholly attest to these benefits as time and again I see my fellow students succeeding in their jobs as they hone their improv skills. A friend of mine that works for Leo Burnett was signed up for classes at Second City by her boss for the purpose of gaining confidence during client meetings. It worked, and after eight weeks of training her client meetings were running more smoothly and successfully. Another friend of mine that works in human resources for a major airline noticed similar effects. The way more and more people are seeing it, in this economy, who doesn’t need the extra edge it takes to become a better presenter and team player?
Essentially, when you learn the basic canons of improv, you acquire a quickness on your feet that becomes invaluable in business relations. In a rapidly changing media landscape, media relations professionals must constantly reinvent their communication strategies. If they want to keep up, finding unorthodox ways to polish your business sensibilities may be just the key. And the answer to tapping into those sensibilities may well be found in improv.