Imagine being asked to stand on stage, face hundreds of strangers, and make them laugh. Sounds like a nightmare, right?
But, comedian Bill Connolly says taking to the stage is exactly what you should do to be successful in you career. Connolly is not only a comedian, but a marketing and branding expert, career advisor and author of Funny Business, a book about using comedy lessons in your personal and professional life.
While working as a marketing manager, Connolly began taking comedy classes. He noticed the more he practiced improvisational comedy, the more his performance at work improved. “I felt more confident, was able to come up with more creative ideas and I didn’t have a fear of failure anymore,” he says.
Connolly now teaches improv workshops to executives and says the skills he’s learned on stage have business applications that can turn anyone into a better communicator and leader. He isn’t alone. Even some of the most prestigious business schools are building comedy into their curriculum. MIT’s Sloan School of Management was among the first business schools to bring improvisational acting into the classroom. The Richard Ivey School of Business in Toronto teamed up with Second City to provide improvisation classes to their students, arguing improv comedy helped train their students to think on their feet and react quickly to changing circumstances.
Although Connelly is a funny guy, eliciting laughs isn’t the point of these workshops. “It’s absolutely not about being funny,” says Connolly. Instead, Connolly focuses on the business lessons executives can take from practicing improv including innovation, communication, leadership and teamwork.
One of the improv exercises he believes is particularly relevant in business is the “yes, and” technique. Used in performance improv, “yes, and” means listening to what someone else says and building upon it. “In business, there’s a lot of ‘no’. It’s a competition and people are really eager to get their own ideas ahead,” says Connolly.
Using the “yes, and” technique, someone makes a statement such as “I want to buy a car.” The next person may add “Yes, and it will have leather seats.” The next person may add “Yes, and it will be red.” As silly as this sequence may sound in a boardroom setting, the idea is to get people to collaborate and understand that any idea that’s brought to the table can be accepted, added upon and made better. “It’s not about shutting things down but taking [an idea] and building it into something better,” says Connolly.
Tossing judgment into the wind is a practice Connolly says can be invaluable in brainstorming sessions and can help improve creativity of everyone on the team. While too often the pressure of being right, or feeling that you have to come up with the best and brightest idea bring the creative process to a halt, improvisation teaches not to fear failure or allow inhibitions to triumph.
“When you’re doing improv you have to make something up on the spot. You don’t have the luxury of sitting back and thinking about it. You have to, for better or worse, put an idea out there in the world,” says Connolly. Mulling over thoughts and questioning their validity instead of throwing them into the foray is one of the barriers to creativity Connolly says can strangle a company’s potential. Practicing improvisational comedy gives individuals the confidence to throw an idea on the table, as silly or wrong as it may end up being.
Communication is another area where Connolly has seen improvement through improv workshops. “When you’re on stage and you’re making things up on the spot, ideas can get lost in translation. You have to be clear [when you’re speaking], but you also have to be a good listener,” he says. An improv technique Connolly often employs is a word toss in which one person says a word and the next person says a word that is inspired by the previous word.
“Most of the time, people will listen to everyone else except the person directly before them,” he laughs. “The reason is they’re thinking about what they’re going to say and they’re not focused on what other people are saying.” This exercise teaches the importance not only of listening but understanding the other’s point of view before reacting.