Second City execs Tom Yorton and Kelly Leonard do not claim their new book Yes, And will teach you how to become a world-class comedian. However, they do argue that the same improv techniques absorbed at The Second City in Chicago by Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler and dozens of other funny alumni can be used to jump start creativity in the workplace.
Yorton, who oversees improv workshops for corporate clients as CEO of Second City Works, says, “When we teach comedy in the business world, it’s not in the service of pure entertainment. We’re doing it to help change behavior and get people to try things they otherwise wouldn’t do within the typical stiff, boring patterns of communication.”
Yorton and Leonard, a longtime Second City producer, held forth from their snow-bound Chicago headquarters to talk about how gibberish, “following the follower” and other brainstorming games foster outrageous ideas and tight-knit ensembles.
You may have heard a lot–too much–about the “Yes, And” approach, but there’s a reason it’s jumped from the improv world into more mainstream usage. “Yes, And” improvisers always agree with the partner’s statement, then build on that premise with something new. Shooting down the initial idea squashes creativity, Kelly says. “What you learn about improvisation when you apply ‘Yes, And’ is that there’s a bounty of ideas, way more than will ever get used. Everyone in the ensemble produces hundreds of ideas, so even though most of (the ideas) will die and never be seen again, people don’t hold on out of fear that they’ll have nothing to offer at the end.”
In the business environment, he adds, “Fear does creep into the process; it’s the job of the boss to remind everybody that it’s okay to fail because when you say ‘Yes, And,’ you’re dealing with an abundance of possibilities. This creates an environment where ultimately you get the richest material.”
Second City’s “Yes, And” exercise “Word at a Time” trains people to create a tall tale by taking turns building sentences one word at a time.
Most Second City improv exercises, developed by Chicago social worker Viola Spolin and later adapted by her son Paul Sills when he co-founded the troupe in 1959, train participants in the simple art of listening. “When you’re a very smart domineering alpha personality, a lot of people shut up around you because they see you’re smart and maybe think “I’m never going to have more stuff to offer,” says Yorton.
In a corporate environment, Leonard notes, “Some people feel like they need to control the conversation out of fear that they’re not going to be top dog or God forbid, someone else will get a little bit of credit. But the truth is, you’re only so smart for so long. You’re only original for so long, so at Second City we like to say, ‘All of us is better than one of us.'”
For “String of Pearls,” the group forms a line. The person at one end is given the first sentence of a story. The person at the end of the line is given the last sentence. Each person in between takes a turn improvising a line of dialogue aimed at making the story progress logically to its pre-set end point.
In “Last Word Response,” two people converse. Each person must begin the first word of his or her sentence with the last word of the partner’s sentence. Both exercises hammer home a simple message: pay attention.
Second City performances draw their power from ensemble thinking that draws equally from each player. Yorton points out, “In the business world, people who’ve had too many lousy team-building experiences become jaded to the point where ‘team’ becomes a loaded word. ‘Ensemble’ gives that idea a fresh look because when you put together an ensemble, you’re looking for different points of view. To use a baseball analogy, you don’t want to stack your lineup with nine sluggers; you don’t want the ensemble full of alphas.”
You also don’t want an ensemble full of “straight white men,” observes Kelly. For decades, Second City troupes rarely included more than one or two woman and people of color. That all changed in 1995. “Tina Fey was in the first gender-equal cast, and then, after the 9/11 attacks, we had Keegan Michael Key performing on stage, relating to that event in a completely different way than his cast mates,” recalls Kelly. “As a creativity laboratory, we’ve seen the shows have become better and stronger and deeper since we started using more diverse casts.”
The strength-in-diversity concept applies to corporate structures, Leonard says. “It’s just a fact. Ensembles become more powerful when they express the differences that exist inside an organization.”
Successful improv performance depends on a willingness to share the spotlight. In the workplace, Leonard observes, “Yes, And” concepts go a long way toward dismantling unproductive control freak behavior. “Top down hierarchical management style doesn’t work any more,” he says. “In a global, web enabled environment, teams disband and form all the time when you’ve got software developers working on a product around the clock, you don’t know who’s going to lead, who’s going to follow. This idea of a pyramid with one person at the top supported by legions of underlings has fallen away as the world itself becomes more improvisational.”
Second City exercise “Follow the Follower” compels shy people to assert themselves while “Giver Taker” forces everyone in the group to take turns being the center of attention. Yorton says “A smart company embraces the ‘Follow the Follower’ style knowing that there are times when you need to cede control to another person.”
“The single most requested class we have is presentation skills and storytelling because it’s the one that invokes the most fear and loathing,” says Yorton. “Most business presentation are 12 people in a room. You might have a monologue at the top but it quickly turns into a dialogue and that’s where improv skills of listening and reading a room and turning objections into agreement become things that matter the most.”
The ability to decipher body language, intonation and facial expressions is nurtured in the “Gibberish” game. Improvisers speak nonsense to each other while an “interpreter” figures out the essence of each statement solely through non-verbal cues. “Improvisation is like yoga for your social skills because it teaches you to see what someone else maybe isn’t noticing in the room because you’re picking up on gesture,” says Leonard. “Are the other people leaning back, leaning forward, are they checking their email? Improvisation, you build something out of nothing, so you learn how to pay attention to the environment you’re in.”
Each time The Second City creates a new satiric revue, its “Dare to Offend” slogan is never far from mind, says Leonard. “We challenge convention. What that means when we go into the business world is we don’t avoid the thing that everybody in the audience would be talking about later the bar when they’ve had a couple of drinks in them. If a merger hasn’t worked out and the two cultures hate each other, comedy is a good way to pop the tension bubble around a thorny issue because what creates cynicism is when everybody pretends the problem’s not there.”
Leonard says, “‘Daring to Offend'” does not mean we’re going to drop F bombs, but we do help companies be honest. At Second City, If somebody screws up on stage, acknowledge it. When sketch starts out and somebody’s name is Tom, then later an actor calls him Ted, the first actor might might say “So when did you learn my true identity?’ If you bring the audience in, they’ll love you for it and it’s the same thing with companies. Comedy is a safe way to hold a mirror up to reality and when you do that as management, you gain enormous credibility.”