Improv techniques have been used for years to help corporate types get over their onstage jitters. As a marketer, I’ve always felt pretty comfortable with public speaking, but I decided to challenge myself anyway–and see what the hype’s all about–and enrolled in some improv classes with Improv Asylum here in Boston. Long story short, I learned way more than I expected to, and wound up completing six levels of classes over 14 months, ultimately performing in a 90-minute comedy show in front of 200 people.
But what’s surprised me most is that the lessons I’ve taken back to the workplace have little to do with public speaking. Having to start from a blank canvas and create something engaging each time I stepped up was a really powerful experience–one that’s changed the way I approach my job well beyond just giving presentations. Here are a few of the more unexpected ways it’s improved my career.
1. Mastering Small Talk Means Mastering Listening
As an introvert, I absolutely hate small talk. It feels like an unnecessary waste of energy. But learning improv taught me that being good at small talk actually means being good at listening.
How often in ordinary conversations do you catch yourself thinking about what you’re going to say next, instead of really hearing what the other person is saying? In improv, if you’re not actively listening to your scene partner for something odd, unusual, or interesting to build upon, then your scene will go nowhere.
Improv requires a heightened sense of listening, observing, and empathy–all vital components of small talk. Improv forced me to listen to other people in ways I never had before. By paying attention to details of even the most trivial conversations, I got better at advancing small talks with clients, partners, and colleagues. How? Because I take the time to respond in a way that’s meaningful (and valuable) to them.
2. Taking An Informed Point Of View Doesn’t Need To Take Forever
When starting an improv scene, each actor must quickly decide on his or her character’s point of view: What’s their temperament and opinion? Are they going to complement or contrast their scene partner? The stronger the character’s point of view (and their ability to heighten it over the course of the scene), the better the improv performance.
This already made sense to me intuitively as a marketer. Having a strong point of view about a client’s businesses allows me to fight daily battles alongside them. But improv helped me find new ways of actually doing that. My field (like many others) is often unpredictable, and it can be easy to just take a position out of urgency and run with it. Since improv is all about gathering information on the fly and reacting to it in real time, I’m better now at adopting a point of view that’s well-informed.
Any good marketer needs to keep up with what’s changing, and decide how cultural shifts, ad-tech launches, business developments, or media trends affect the brands we work with. Improv has taken some of the guesswork and gut instinct out of that, without sacrificing speed.
3. It’s Always Better To Show Than Tell (Not Just Onstage)
It’s easy to narrate an improv scene, but doing that won’t entertain an audience. In improv, you need to actually perform. Likewise, speakers have long been told not to recite a script or read directly from their slides. But I’ve found the “show, don’t tell” ethos extends to other facets of my work life, too.
Improv artists don’t have props, so they have to make do with creating and manipulating invisible items and spaces. If during a scene you suddenly decide to milk a cow, just saying that you’re milking a cow is not going to be compelling. Instead, you need to figure out how you can show the audience that you’re milking a cow.
This is something I now bear in mind in just about every meeting I participate in. I’ve seen too many client presentations fall flat when presenters do nothing more than describe their ideas. But the same goes for team meetings and even one-on-one chats with coworkers, too. No matter the situation, people are better at grasping concepts when we show them what it looks like in practice, or when the concept comes to life.
4. The Unknown Is An Opportunity, Not Something To Fear
The scariest (and best) part of improv is that anything can happen during a scene. The only thing you can be certain of is uncertainty. Business leaders never tire of reciting that platitude, urging their teams to see this as an opportunity. But my 14 months in improv training has actually helped me get better at that.
Advancing an improv scene requires thinking bigger than what’s unfolding right in front of you. In order to move the scene forward, you need to see ahead to what’s possible in the first place. Yet that’s not quite the same as just planning. Making contingency plans can limit risk, but it’s actually serendipity that opens up possibilities. At work, you’ll be more likely to be remembered for your responses to those moments rather than how rigidly you stuck to your plan. But for many people, that’s easier said than done.
Through improv, though, I’ve learned to become a lot less uptight. Because I’m less burdened with the stress of uncertainty, I’ve found myself able to get more excited about all the opportunities that come by unexpectedly–as most of them tend to do.