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How To..."Yes, And" Your Way To Better Banter

Illustrations by Robert Samuel Hanson

The cardinal rule of improv comedy: Keep a riff lively with "Yes, and. . . ." The phrase fosters funnier creative exchanges through positive reinforcement. Will and Kevin Hines of the Upright Citizens Brigade theater share ways to break out "yes, and"—along with other tools of the improv trade—in business settings.

1. Avoid changing the subject
Example: Your friend says, "My boss is taking me for granted at work." Don't say, "I'm lucky. My boss is grrreat!" That implies bad listening. Instead, commiserate: "I'm sorry your boss takes you for granted. He shouldn't do that." This is the "yes" part.

2. Offer words of encouragement
For the previous example, you can go one step further: "Your boss shouldn't take you for granted. His job would be impossible without your help!" This is the "and" part. By adding compliments, you're encouraging your friend to tell you more.

3. Ask leading questions . . .
When greeting your boss in the hallway, don't say: "Hey, how are you doing?" A generic question merits a generic, one-word answer: "Fine." Instead, try, "Hey, how did your son's soccer game go?" The specifics will prompt a more meaningful response.

4 . . . And respond to generic questions with colorful answers
If a coworker asks, "What did you do last night?" share a short story: "I changed the showerhead in my bathroom yesterday. I felt like a mechanical genius!" People are more likely to respond to active experiences.

5. Defuse awkwardness with wit
Let's say you're at a boozy business lunch and you knock a glass of wine all over the table. Don't say, "Oops! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! Sorry! Sorry!" Overapologizing is a sign of weakness. Instead, make fun of yourself: "I haven't even started drinking and I've already had too much."

6. Bring things full circle
In improv there's a saying: "The end is in the beginning." If you're stuck in an endless water-cooler chat, refer back to the start, to hint at closure. If the conversation started with, "Did you see the Lakers game?" wrap it up with, "Well, I can't wait for the next one!"

Illustrations by Robert Samuel Hanson

More "How To":

NEXT: How to...Visualize an Exchange

A version of this article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.