While it might seem contradictory, devoting time each week to ‘playing around’ may be one of the best ways to jumpstart your career. But while all play is beneficial in some capacity—adult coloring books can relieve stress and stacking Legos a la Brad Pitt is rewarding—one type of play rises above the others. I’m talking about the imaginative, spur-of-the-moment collaborative play known as improvisational theater.
Comedic improv is what started Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on their careers to Saturday Night Live and beyond, what gave Steve Carell his edge before The Office, and what propelled Will Ferrell to super stardom. But how can improv help the average person working in an office? Quite a bit, actually.
Thinking on your feet
Improv comedy teaches you how to think on your feet, work in groups, lead with confidence and be more inventive under pressure—all skills that translate to the boardroom and beyond.The benefits are so clear that top business schools from MIT’s Sloan School of Management to The Richard Ivey School of Business in Toronto are now bringing improv classes into the curriculum. If you were to take one of these classes (or any improv class), here are a few benefits you could reap:
Improv teaches you how to think on your feet, work in groups, lead with confidence and be more inventive under pressure—all skills that translate to the boardroom and beyond.
Become a better listener: There’s no script in improv, so players are forced to listen closely to the last words spoken by the other person on stage. Otherwise, the scene makes no sense:
Person A: I love alligators.
Person B: When was Reagan president?
That scene isn’t building a story. Likewise, meetings at work where people talk over each other, instead of listening, aren’t productive. With sharpened listening skills you’ll be better equipped to hear your coworkers’ ideas and build on those ideas. You’ll also be able to pay better attention in meetings—a great skill when you get a pop question from the CEO.
Collaborate like a champ: In improv, you work as a team. It’s all about supporting your partner on stage, working to their strengths, setting them up for success, and trusting they’ll do the same for you. Sometimes that means going with the best idea, even if it’s not your own.
A willingness to let go of authorship and embrace true collaboration is a skill you need at work. Because, in all honesty, other people can make your work better. By being open to possibilities you’ll discover new solutions and learn more than by being uncollaborative. Plus, you might meet a work wife.
Lose your inhibitions as an innovator: In improv, you “move fast and break things”—a favorite phrase in the tech industry too. On-the-fly thinking is part of playing. Many people balk at this because they want to plan everything out for fear of failing. In life, you will be, at various times, a failure. In improv this perfectly fine and routinely encourage. The actor Mike Myers says this about improv, “What you can’t fix, you feature, and mistakes are great happy accidents. That’s the essence of improv...” And Del Close, one of the pioneers of contemporary improv famously encouraged improvisers to “Follow the fear”.
Basically, improv teaches you that failure is a natural part of growth. It is better to have tried something, failed, and learned from it than to have never tried at all. Sound advice for any brand, company, or professional looking to disrupt an industry.
Take the first step
Improv classes are a commitment—one that this author fully endorses—but if you aren’t ready to sign up, you can do a bit on your own. Grab a meeting room and try these exercise with your coworkers:
Goal: Improve listening skills
Exercise: Last thing said
Instructions: Pair up in groups of two. Person A makes a statement, Person B repeats the statement and adds information. Keep this up for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Person A: I have the day off today
Person B: You have the day off today and you did nothing
Person A: I did nothing because I am stressed out
Person B: You are stressed out because your dog won't stop barking at night
Person A: My dog won't stop barking at night because someone won't stop playing music
Person B: I won't stop playing music because I want to be a DJ
Look out for this: If you can’t remember what your partner’s last words were, that means you weren’t really listening. Focus and try again.
Goal: Be better at group collaboration
Exercise: One word story
Instructions: Stand in a circle and try to tell a story one word at a time. Start with “Once...upon...a...time” and create a story for a few minutes. When the story has some shape, try to entice an ending of, “The...end”.
Person A: Once
Person B: upon
Person C: a
Person D: time
Person A: a
Person B: frog
Person C: jumped
One word at a time means you might have to be a mundane word like “a”, “and”, or “the”. That’s OK though, the product is a great story at the end that you ALL worked on as a team.
Goal: Embrace on-the-fly thinking (reduce fear of failure)
Exercise: Try again
Instructions: two people get in front of the group, one person sits in the front row and has a bell (or anything that makes noise). The two people in front start describing a scene they are in “We are walking in the meadow…” and at any time, the person with the bell can ring it and yell “Try again”. When this happens the last person who spoke has to repeat what they said but change it slightly.
Person A: Hello, Mr. Barneby. What a fine day for a walk in the park.
Person B: It is, Mrs. Mildred. I love the sunshine.
Person B: I love the trees in this park.
Person B: I love seeing the lovers arm in arm.
Person A: As do, I. In fact, I think that is my wife arm in arm with another man right now!
Person A: I think that is my dog with the neighbor's dog!
Person B: How lovely.
If you find yourself being afraid of saying the “wrong thing” remember that all the choices were good, it’s just based on the preference of the person with the bell. Have fun coming up with other choices. Stretch your imagination.
While you might not be vying for a role on SNL, you can still benefit from an improv class or two. Improv can make you a braver, more creative, and more empathetic person at work and home. Plus, it’s fun. I mean, when was the last time you spent three hours laughing?
I did last Monday night in my improv class. And Tuesday was a good day at work.