Stage Coaches

Second City Communications teaches better business through the elements of improvisation.


They fuel comedy as we know it. For more than 40 years, the stars of the Chicago-based The Second City Theatre — America’s preeminent laugh factory — have roped even the most timid and uptight onto hilarious audience-participation skits. They’ve shouted, ranted, and bumbled their way into “Saturday Night Live,” “Seinfeld,” and “Cheers” — but The Second City’s company of loud mouths and class clowns may be the last people on earth whom you’d expect to coach corporate America on business and communication skills.


“Many companies need our help desperately,” says Joe Keefe, cofounder and executive producer of 10-year-old Second City Communications (SCC), a branch of the comedy club that trains and entertains corporate clients ranging from J.D. Power to Leo Burnett to Motorola. “Our mandate is to bring a sense of fun and humor to what we’re doing. We assist companies in internal and external communication.”

That mandate doesn’t mean teaching CEOs and corporate consultants how to dominate a conversation like John Belushi or how to dazzle an audience like Dan Aykroyd; it means using the basics of improvisation and humor to bolster communication, creative management, and team-building skills — skills most companies can’t afford to neglect.

According to Keefe, theater and business have a lot in common: Every endeavor has its stars, bit-part players, and behind-the-scenes managers. Likewise, rules for stage performances translate to business presentations and rules for building outstanding casts of characters apply to compiling top-notch talent.

Listen, accept, initiate, and contribute. These four elements of effective communication constitute the improv code. Keefe says learning these basics can boost any company’s creativity, customer service, and teamwork.


Perhaps the most basic principle of performance, listening is a vital skill in every corporate atmosphere, Keefe says. Where theatrical leadership-training programs such as Philippe Gaulier’s “clown school” emphasize charisma, Keefe believes that outstanding leaders must possess masterful communication skills.


“Listening in business today is ‘Get to your point now because I have to run,'” Keefe says. “Businesspeople need to learn to open themselves up to a new idea fully, vulnerably, patiently, and accurately. They must allow time to listen emotionally, like your mother listened when you were hurt or upset. What you felt from her was more important than what she said to you. Likewise, you must prepare yourself emotionally at work and be willing to say, ‘I’m here. I’m ready. I’m patient. You’re the only person here — my only focus.'”

Keefe calls this “hyperactive” listening — listening emotionally and physically, to understand rather than to react. “In business, as in theater, one needs to listen physically,” he says. “Move your body toward a person openly so not to lose placement, momentum, or focus on interpersonal, physical exchange.”

Before students are ready to hyperactively listen, the eclectic SCC staff loosens up each group with nonsensical games like “Zip Zap Zop,” an experiment in unorthodox communication that relies on finger snaps and strange sounds, or “How Do You Like Your Neighbor?”, an adult form of musical chairs. “Within seconds, these games turn CEOs and typically buttoned-up people into laughing and giggling six-year-olds,” New York-based SCC Producer Teresa Goodwin says.

Kraft Foods senior brand manager Mike Winter agrees. “SCC has a bunch of fun exercises that keep people engaged and their minds working,” he says. After participating in an improvisation-focused workshop, Winter chose SCC to facilitate a larger, 3-hour brainstorming session that used “humor to loosen up and open up people to creative thinking.”


Once every group member is at ease, SCC stretches comfort levels with more challenging, thought-provoking exercises like “Create a Story.” During this game, a circle of participants generates a spontaneous story, each person adding a sentence and passing around the momentum and the plot. SCC producer Darren Kritz says “Create a Story” encourages hyperactive listening by chiding the distracted or inattentive listener who inevitably blurts out a sentence that makes no sense, derailing the story. “Create a Story” also forces participants to practice the second principle of improv: role acceptance. A player, whether on the business stage or the theater stage, must accept her role before she can own it.


To explore this principle, the Kraft group played a more physical version of “Create a Story” that requires two people to take center stage and improvise a scene. Anyone can tell the players to freeze at any time, then take over one of the parts and move the scene in a new direction. Mike Winter says if his manager Dave Lynn hadn’t learned this second principle of improvisation, the momentum of Kraft’s SCC session could have easily died.

Winter describes Lynn as reserved. “Dave generally avoids physical contact. He does not hug people,” Winter says. But when an SCC staff member volunteered Lynn to jump onto the “Create a Story” stage, he accepted his role in the limelight. In fact, Lynn blossomed. “As everyone was watching, he hugged the largest guy there,” Winter says. “The entire team was dying. And Dave made a point of talking about it later.”


Once an actor has accepted her role on stage, she needs to initiate her own ideas. “She needs to contribute to the end result as much as anybody else,” says Keefe, who believes businesspeople must follow similar principles when accepting a task and meeting the needs of a group. Another SCC workshop exercise highlights these collaborative skills. One person strikes a pose. This pose is an “offer” that the person’s partner must accept and answer with another pose or interaction. Totally nonverbal in nature, this exercise forces participants to act after listening — to respond to body language in the same way that one would scrutinize and reply to words.

Keefe says companies need to “shake up the snow globe” to escape linear patterns and refresh forgotten elements of a business. Taking a new look at an old thing can prove more fruitful than creating brand-new products, he says. And humor helps. SCC shook up 200-year-old Kraft in one specific brainstorming seminar. Four SCC facilitators played typical shoppers in a wholesale club, hamming it up along the way. After scrutinizing the act, the 100 Kraft workers teamed up and generated a whopping 150 promotional and product ideas. “I think we achieved a lot more than we would have if we had not used Second City Communications to facilitate,” Winter says.


It’s also important, Goodwin says, to contribute to people’s ideas rather than to detract from them — or, even worse, dismiss them as boooorrriinng. Creativity is about emotion. It’s not about logic. A great actor can draw context out of the person next to her by consciously reacting to the pair’s mutual energy. On stage this is called “the moment.” The audience, along with the cast, becomes incredibly aware of the powerful bond between the two people on stage.


In a business, “the moment” might manifest itself in seamless solution-finding, better brainstorming, and more effective teamwork. But this is an advanced lesson. “Improvisation is not something that someone can pick up in one shot or in one event,” Goodwin says. It is a learning process and a very powerful tool that bears much fruit. So far, she says, the only group that’s had a problem with improvisation was a bunch of isolated Illinois librarians who had always worked alone. “Most of our clients are out in the world, interacting with people a lot. But every now and then we’ll get a group that’s tucked away within an organization that might be a little bit harder to bring out to work as a team. But we still do.”

In the end, Keefe says, good humor means good business. People who have a good sense of humor typically communicate and manage new projects better. Personal humor and self-awareness infuse all facets of an enterprise — including the all-important customer experience. “When you approach a customer-service person at the airport, you can sense immediately whether he has a sense of humor,” Keefe says. “It’s in the way that he looks at you, in the way that he talks to you, and in the way that he greets you. Humor contributes positively to every interaction.”

Learn more about Second City Communications.