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Karen Hough: “The curse of knowledge”

Work Ethic: Do the work, even on days you struggle. Make your deadlines. Read your editor’s comments on time and respond thoughtfully. Research marketing, financing and promoting your book. Work hard. That was part of the reason my publisher came back to work with me again; I made it easy for them to do their job. […]

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Work Ethic: Do the work, even on days you struggle. Make your deadlines. Read your editor’s comments on time and respond thoughtfully. Research marketing, financing and promoting your book. Work hard. That was part of the reason my publisher came back to work with me again; I made it easy for them to do their job.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Hough.

Karen Hough is the Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge LLC, which creates business training with an improv twist, and is in the Top 1% of woman-owned businesses in the US. She is a #1 Amazon bestselling author, recipient of the Silver Stevie Award for Most Innovative Business of the Year, and won both the WNBA Inspiring Woman Award and the WBENC PitchPivot Grand Prize. She is a philanthropist, Yale grad, avid hiker and lives in Ohio with her husband and 3 children. Her books include: “The Improvisation Edge: Secrets to Building Trust and Radical Collaboration at Work”, “Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over”, and “Go With It: Embrace the Unexpected to Drive Change”. She is also the creator of the “Yes! Deck”, a deck of cards packed with business tips.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

It’s an Oops to Eureka! story! Oops to Eureka! is an improv concept that demands we embrace the unexpected and find the discovery. After graduating from Yale, I became a professional actor and improviser in Chicago, training and performing with Second City and other improv troupes, doing theater, film and radio. After I got married, I was enjoying success as an actor in New York when I had the ridiculous opportunity to go into a tech startup. (Remember, I was a Humanities major, and they still wanted to hire me…) In a real twist, my husband said, “If the tech thing doesn’t work out, you can always fall back on your acting, Honey.” I crammed and took classes every night and improvised during the day. Although I didn’t have the experience of many of the engineers, I could think on my feet in front of clients, come up with creative solutions, and roll with the unexpected. I kept getting promoted and ended up working in three different start-ups; one went public and one was acquired. It was crazy and difficult, and I loved it. The Wharton School of Business agreed to let us test the idea of using improv as a behavioral learning tool in 1998, and we became the first training company in the world to integrate improv, back it up with research in neuroscience and psychology, and trademark our principles. I bought out my partners and incorporated in 2005. We now serve companies such as NBCUniversal, JPMorganChase, AstraZeneca, and Coach, both in the US and internationally.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Interesting and terrifying, we are all still dealing with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m so incredibly proud of my Ensemble, and this crisis has been a test of our culture. And we really leaned into being improvisers! We had to be flexible, agile, and positive in the face of negativity, as well as resilient. We had been doing virtual work for over 7 years, but only about 5% of our clients wanted virtual; they wanted us to do the work in person. When the lockdown happened, about 95% of our business rescheduled or cancelled. We started calling clients to let them know we are experts at virtual delivery. We also started redesigning everything for the virtual platform. I’m proud to say that each month, more and more current and new clients are asking for us to engage and reaping the benefits of bringing their teams together for engaging, fun, and surprising training experiences. We’ve also created a new consulting category — our producers are savvy on so many virtual platforms that they are now assisting clients in being more effective.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

My editors both at Berrett-Koehler and ATD were amazing, and I appreciated their work to make me a better writer by pushing me. I learned about “the curse of knowledge” from my first editor, Johanna Vondeling at BK while we were creating “The Improvisation Edge: Secrets to Building Trust and Radical Collaboration at Work”. My understanding of improv is so deep and intrinsic to how I think and behave, that in trying to write about it, I was leaving the reader bewildered. I skipped over important steps, explanations, and key points because they seemed obvious to me. She taught me to really put myself in the reader’s place, remove assumptions and write in a way that was accessible. Always think about the person who has never encountered your concepts before. Even if you are writing for a more sophisticated audience, accessibility and inclusion by making concepts plain is universally appreciated.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A funny mistake occurred on my second book, “Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over”. As a writing and publishing cohort, we share a lot of the creation with our communities, and ask for their opinions on all sorts of things during the book creation process. Since I was a second-time writer, I assumed I knew it all, especially how my audience would respond to choices! We had a gallery of book covers for the community to vote upon, and there was one design with a rubber chicken on the cover. I immediately dismissed it as too goofy, and even bet my family that it wouldn’t get a single vote. It was the landslide winner! So many people wrote that they loved the goofiness, identified with the concept of being chicken to present in front of audiences, and immediately chose that cover. I paid up on the bet to my family, and never again assumed I could predict voting outcomes!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’ve been so excited to write short articles and series around topics that matter right now. I have the advantage of working with an Ensemble at ImprovEdge, so we collaborate on much of the work we do now. I’m either a writer or editor on everything that goes out from ImprovEdge. We’re looking deeply at the behaviors that affect the world in the current pandemic and from a racial justice standpoint. Our interest is in saying “Yes, and” — first say “yes” and acknowledge reality, no matter how difficult. Then say “and” — meaning that you can take action, even if it feels uncomfortable. We try to address sticky situations in human interaction and behavior from the improviser’s standpoint — be positive, flexible, collaborative — listen and give the other person the spotlight. So many readers are letting us know that by providing small tips and steps for managing virtual exhaustion, or becoming resilient, or facing a misunderstanding with a colleagues, they are moving forward.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

A really interesting story is about dealing with the unexpected, and how you choose to respond. I was speaking for an audience of 300+ in Dallas when all of my technology went crazy. Patterns started running across the screen and I had no control over the slides, cameras or videos. The lesson we teach in improv is Acknowledge It, Deal with It, Move On. I acknowledged by asking the audience for their patience as we figured it out. I dealt with it by calling on the A/V pros to leave their booth and come to the stage to deal with the issue. I kept presenting (luckily, my microphone still worked!) while I waited for them to fix it. When it became clear they couldn’t fix the problem in about 5 minutes, I asked the audience to applaud the A/V pros for their efforts, sent them back to the booth and finished the presentation without visuals. And then, in order to Move On, I never referred back to the problem again. I finished strong as if it was only a small glitch.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

I have 3 books, so here are the lessons!

The Improvisation Edge: Readers will be empowered to use the principles of improvisation to build trusting, collaborative, adaptive teams and have fun at work!

Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Readers will have the tools and confidence to present in their own authentic way. Throw away stupid rules that keep them from using their voice and showing up in a powerful, personal way.

Go With It: Readers will understand that change is difficult, but through the examples of other successful business leaders, they can be adaptable and improvisational in how they choose to respond. That flexibility will help them lead through times of uncertainty with confidence.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

A Great Idea That’s Fresh: There are many “crowded markets” in writing. Although you may be an expert, it will be harder to stand out in a field with many other opinions. Do you have an idea, approach or viewpoint that’s fresh? I was the first person to build a company using improv as a business concept backed up with scientific research. I was one of the first people to apply improve concepts to business in my writing as well. What can you offer?

Work Ethic: Do the work, even on days you struggle. Make your deadlines. Read your editor’s comments on time and respond thoughtfully. Research marketing, financing and promoting your book. Work hard. That was part of the reason my publisher came back to work with me again; I made it easy for them to do their job.

Great Editors: You need to have someone who understands you and pushes you.

A solid marketing plan: Authors are responsible for marketing their books now, it’s not all on the publisher. Do you have a social media presence? A launch plan? Events, virtual or in-person, to promote the book? Who is supporting you?

Resilience: It’s not always easy to get tough notes from an editor or get a bad review online. Take the pieces of their comments that will help you grow, toss the rest, and get up and write again.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Reserve time to work. During my first book, I learned that I couldn’t work in short bursts. I needed at least 3 hours to write anything worthwhile. I scheduled blocks of time so that my staff couldn’t put me in meetings. I also used the library! Having a space separate from my home and office went a long way in allowing me to focus!

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I love research and business books. So many great ideas are out there, and it was exciting for me to find more and more scientific evidence for the concepts about which I was writing. I love to see other writers’ perspectives and integrate their ideas into my own as well. I also love a good novel for fun! It’s relaxing and fires my creative brain.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It’s a movement to which I already belong! Gender equity, equal pay for equal work, benefits and freedom so that all genders can take advantage of meaningful work, being a parent if they choose, and living with the people they love.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: Karen Hough / Twitter @KarenHough / YouTube: ImprovEdge / Facebook: ImprovEdge

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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