Improv comedy has long been a tool for building great comedy. For the past fifty years, improv has been breeding some of the best and brightest comedians. Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler all trained in Chicago and performed at the iO Theater (formerly Improv Olympic) and Second City before they moved onto the national stage.
In recent years, companies and professionals have realized that training in improv comedy can do more than prepare you for Saturday Night Live-- which, even for the best and brightest, SNL is still a long shot-- it can actually make you better at your job.
I took my first improv class four years ago, and immediately I was hooked (and also terrified). At the time, I was working at the corporate office for a major American fashion label. Sales were so-so and resources were being depleted. As such, each individual team was scrambling. Sales fought for ground against design. And design against production. Almost every conversation and attempt to make things better was met with a resounding, “No.” I remember it was because of this that I told my friend, “Our whole team should take an improv class.”
The cornerstone of improv is its single, non-negotiable rule: “Yes, and...” It means that whatever someone says— and they can say pretty much anything— you say yes to it, and then you add something of yourself. If someone says, “You’re a doctor” the only “wrong” answer you can give is “I’m not a doctor. You’re drunk,” because instead of building something together, you’re choosing to deny the other person.
It’s a lot easier to say, “No” in real life, and when you have to fight your way up the corporate ladder, or fight for resources, and even fight to do your job, it can be even more tempting. Improv can help you retrain your brain— to teach you how to say yes, to let go of your ego, and to become a better boss.
Jeff Griggs, who teaches with The Second City, remembered a specific time when the President of a company had a major breakthrough during his corporate improv workshop. Griggs was leading a workshop where the participants were “writing a letter.” The way that it works is that each person speaks one word at a time to build the story together. The President of the company was participating along with his employees and Griggs observed that he was the type of guy who wanted to show that he was, in fact, the President. Of course, every time the story came back around to him, he would have to do a conjunction.
After the workshop was finished, the man came up to Griggs and told him how eye-opening the experience had been. At the beginning, he’d thought. I’m the President. I should be able to have great words, but the one-word-at-a-time letter made him realize that everyone has something to contribute. “I don’t always have to be the person in charge,” the man realized. He had a team he could depend on, and sometimes, it’s best to trust your team to get the job done and fall into a support role.
Lillie Frances, who owns the Chicago Comedy Company and Laugh Out Loud Theatre, explained that improv works to build teams because “Improv is based on the belief that you work together as an ensemble, and that you give and take within that ensemble, whether it’s give and take in terms of ideas or focus.” Full disclosure: I perform for both The Chicago Comedy Company and Laugh Out Loud, and as a result, I can confidently say that what she teaches in workshops, she practices in how she runs her business.
Frances says that in her years of teaching corporate workshops, she has found that “[Improv] teaches leaders how to build a better team, so that you don’t have to micromanage.” Freeing oneself from the notion that you have to “do it all yourself” when you’re the boss is one of the major benefits of improv, but it can also help in many other ways.
Many professionals are drawn to improv because of the way that it can benefit their presentation skills. Frances explains that as improvisers, we’re trained to think on our feet and be comfortable in crowds. Those are skills that we can then pass onto people who are worried about getting up in front of a large group of people. Improv can also teach people how they come across— physically and verbally— in the workplace. From that awareness, we can help hone their skills. Frances explains, “It teaches people to present most effectively,” whether that be to clients or to your own team.
Griggs observes that the discomfort of improv is part of its merit. “It’s going to make you uncomfortable, and that’s okay because the more you practice being uncomfortable, the more you get comfortable.” Sometimes the discomfort of being in an improv workshop is the lesson itself because it teaches you to get used to the feeling, and thus, enables you to endure that feeling in other aspects of your life and work.
Managing people in a workplace often calls on you to be uncomfortable. It requires setting expectations and sometimes following up when those expectations aren’t met. Improv can help you to get over the fear of delivering bad news, and in turn, makes you better at delivering it.
In the end, maybe the biggest improv takeaway is that everything that you do is disposable. It can be terrifying to do an improv scene because what if the scene you do is bad? The good news is you never have to do it again. Improv can teach you how to keep self-doubt from getting in your way. It makes you calmer under pressure. It makes you less afraid, and it can help you to better cope with mistakes. After all, improv is all about celebrating mistakes. If you can learn how to celebrate your employees mistakes while guiding the ship in the right direction, you can become the type of boss who changes lives.
Tags: communication, entrepreneur, honest leadership, humour, leadership, leadership advice, self-improvement, stress management, team building, team members, chicago comedy company, improv, second city