As a business improviser, I am often asked how I teach improvisation to professionals. The question is usually delivered with a very confused or surprised expression, “So, you do what?” or “How does that work?” No matter how it’s asked, you can count on a slight tone of pessimism. I see the wheels turning in their heads as they wonder how I apply comedy to people doing very serious business things. People who aren’t familiar with improv, usually think it only involves wacky characters, miming and celebrity impersonations. Even though there are practitioners who have been applying improvisation to non-theatrical settings as a training tool for over 30 years, there are still misconceptions. I must admit, I really like the challenge of overcoming this confusion. Sue Walden, whom I met through the Applied Improvisation Network, is a pioneer in the business of applied improv, and her teaching and training paved the way for folks like me. Her work with Ask.com is a great example of how businesses can and do apply improv skills to become more successful and drive change in their organization.
When I do have the opportunity to squash the misconceptions, here’s how I break it down:
Improvisation is not comedy. It is a skill, and a muscle that has to be worked out. The skills of improvisation are nothing more than advanced communication skills that in business often get missed. Training in business doesn’t always focus on what’s most important. What’s important is how we communicate with each other internally and externally. Nothing brings collapse to companies faster than a lack of communication.
Truth is comedy. Whether you are doing an improv scene on stage or presenting an idea to your team, if you are authentic, then people like you and accept your ideas because it is honest. And, sometimes, these moments do end up being funny.
Improvisers are keen communicators. In order to perform a successful improv scene on stage, there are several skills being utilized at one time. Improv performers have spent years toning their listening and focus muscles, and over time these skills become habitual. In business, the skills that are not practiced often are the ones that are most needed in moments that are critical to success. Sales people practice pitches until they can say them in their sleep, never even considering how they might connect best with the person they are pitching to.
So I ask you. Is Improvisation comedy or is it business skill? I say that it CAN be both, but the skills come long before the funny. Once the improvisation techniques are in place, the comedy can occur anytime. And, I think we can all agree that the best comedy is unrehearsed, unplanned and unexpected.
Kristy Oliver-West is the Director of Business Services at The Brink Improv, and an Improviser. After spending over a decade in B2B sales, Kristy co-founded The Brink Improv in Atlanta, GA, where they apply the concepts of improvisation to business needs to improve communication and performance in the work place. Contact via Twitter @brinkimprov