Improv: Off the Stage and in the Workplace
Apr 29, 2016
You’re about to go on stage in front of 100 people.
Usually this means you have studied a speech or script for hours in preparation. But this is improv, and there’s no script. You have no idea what character you are playing or what the scene is about until a random audience member shouts out their suggestion. Then off you go.
Improv has prepared me for life, and work, in ways I didn’t realize until much later. Improv teaches us to be present in the scene, in the game or in life.
To further support my theory that improv can help in the workplace, I got some insights from one of my many teachers, Zach Ward, owner and producer of DSI Comedy Theater and the executive director of the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival.
“We all improvise everyday,” Zach Ward said. “Over the last 15 years in organizational development and executive coaching, I’ve seen the professional skills of improv artists dramatically impact a student’s ability to stay present, stay positive and actively listen, to see opportunities where other people might only see challenges or even insurmountable obstacles.”
According to Ward, most people stick to a script out of fear. “This could be an actual script, or a set of expectations they have had put on them or have placed on themselves. They are afraid to be vulnerable, to be judged for taking risks; they are afraid to fail,” He said. “They are afraid they may not be able to get a conversation, a project, or even a career back on track once they stray from the pre-approved acceptable script. This fear leads to normalcy and creative paralysis, the same pitfall that produces boring, uninspired comedy on stage.”
Sadly, most people act alone, even when ‘working together’ as a group.
“They listen to others only for the break in conversation so they can speak themselves,” said Ward. “This makes it exceptionally difficult to create instant comedy with another person on stage. Imagine the impact of this inability to actively listen on an internal brainstorming session – you may be producing twice the work necessary simply because you and your team are not working with each other.”
“Further,” Ward explains. “If people working with you do not feel heard, they will eventually stop contributing altogether, leaving you to produce twice the work anyway.”
Imagine a new client pitch has been escalated, and you find yourself meeting with an executive Vice President who shifts the content of your prepared conversation. You zone out, because you’re not used to staying flexible in conversations, or responding to big picture client needs instead of pushing your own small picture agenda. This is where improv training kicks in and saves the day.
“With every conversation we have, every pitch we deliver, every question we get asked, we find ourselves improvising. But few take time and train to improvise effectively,” added Ward, “Yes, you can develop this muscle and you can apply improvisation to the workplace. I promise, it makes a difference.”
I’ve always loved to write. When I was in elementary school I would write plays for the neighborhood kids to perform. Later, I got hold of a video camera so I could create funny videos. As an English major at the University of North Carolina, I discovered that I could write fun scripts that told stories for a career. Boom! Advertising/Journalism immediately became my second major. I moved to Chicago to work at some amazing ad agencies like FCB and DDB where I sharpened my skills and helped market national brands. I also spent two years studying improv at The Second City, which has certainly helped out in many a presentation. I moved back down south so I could play tennis all year long and was lucky enough to find a workplace like Centerline with other creatives who share ideas and inspire me every day.