How to Become A Skilled Improviser

Three Lessons Learned From My Afternoon at the Improv

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How well do you respond to the unexpected?  What do you do when contexts, circumstances and conversations suddenly shift?

Thriving in times of uncertainty requires thinking on your feet.  Acting fast.  And responding to whatever shows up with calm and with ease.  A trainable trait Harvard Business Review (HBR) refers to as a skilled improviser

Improvisation is key to organizational adaptability and agility.  Leaders and employees who are capable improvisers are more adept at steering their organizations through everything from pandemics to paradigm shifts, HBR’s research reveals.

If you find improvisation intimidating or illusive, you’re not alone. 

All the World is a Stage

Performers learn improv techniques as a way to integrate the unexpected and to respond to one another with spontaneity.  Improv exercises are, at the core, techniques for tapping our potential to think and to behave in new ways. 

Through improvisation we can strengthen a kind of authentic presence with other people that is an invaluable resource for navigating life and relationships, according to Jude Treder-Wollf, a certified practitioner of improvisation and consultant with Lifestage, Inc.  The ability to improvise also positively correlates with the perception of psychological safety.

Sound timely and relevant?

Despite its benefits, improvisation is an unfortunately untrained muscle among most corporate athletes.  Which prompted me to get more curious about how to get fit to face a future that looks increasingly uncertain.  What I discovered along the way is that comedy clubs and corporate collaboration have more in common than the need to improvise. 

What’s my line?

Ring lights reflected off his horn-rimmed glasses.  His slicked back hair framed a smile that swallowed the screen.  Keyboard music coupled to the crescendo of his laugh.  I gazed into the camera looking for confidence and found none. 

Why had I agreed to try this? 

Fortunately, Piero Procaccini revels in novice.  He’s been teaching improv and sketch comedy for over a decade.  Now he provides a backstage pass to what professional performers perfect at The Second City, a premier comedy theater and school of improvisation.  They have cultivated generations of the world’s most iconic entertainers, including Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert, just to name a few. 

“Innovation results from improvisation,” Piero explains.  “Improvisation asks performers to accept and believe in a circumstance – no matter how unexpected or outrageous.  And there are two words that every improv performer uses in order to create something innovative:  Yes, and…

“That’s true in business, too,” I reflected aloud.  “Possibilities often begin with a “yes.”  A yes that acknowledges the situation at hand without judgement and a willingness to explore a particular scenario, issue or circumstance.  The challenge is getting everyone to start with yes.”

As if on cue, three new faces joined the screen.

“I invited a few friends to join us,” Piero chuckled.  “I hope you don’t mind.  Improvisational theater is a team sport.  Much like corporate America.”

He then set the stage for how to support each other in saying yes during our upcoming scene:

  • Start from a place of unconditional support.
  • Reserve judgment of yourself and others.
  • Be others focused.

Sensing my hesitation among professional performers, he continued his coaching.  “Don’t worry about being perfect,” he cautioned.  “We’ll take turns taking risks.  Find what you can trust in any given moment.  I’ll count you into the scene.”

Curtain Call

Piero started at ten.  I couldn’t hear him over the sound of my heart racing.  What gave me pause was participating in the troupe’s pre-show ritual.

Backs.

Backs.

I have your back.

Messages of encouragement flooded the screen.  Reminders that we succeed or fail in the heat of the moment – under a glaring spotlight – together.

What might change for you and for your organization if your next meeting started from a place of unconditional support?   How might responding “Yes, and….?” help you accept the unexpected, unscripted scene unfolding around you right now?

Whatever you decide to try, I have your back.

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