What Improv is and Why it Matters – Benefits


In my previous post on improv, I said about improv,

“It requires thinking on one’s feet. More importantly, it requires working with the other actors in the scene — each player must be able to respond to and lead the others with lines and actions that enhance the scene and make it entertaining for the audience.”

For that to work, improv actors must develop a critical skill: deep listening skills accompanied by the ability to act on what one hears, not based on personal biases or experience. This type of deep listening is an essential skill for anyone in business.

What I Use From Improv Training

I call on my improv training when I teach, give a presentation, or run a meeting. The skills that I use the most, I use unconsciously and repeatedly.

Consider teaching a course (which you know by now that I’ve done for Learning Tree for over 30 years).

  • When a participant asks a question, I have to do more than listen to it. I have to prepare an answer or followup. I cannot jump in even if I know where the question is going. It’s not just a matter of respect, it’s a matter of synchronizing with the questioner as one would synchronize with another actor in an improv scene. Likewise, my answer, response, or a follow-on question needs to enrich the audience (class) and fulfill their expectations, not just those of the questioner.
  • It is impractical to memorize all the content for a four-day course. Doing so would also mean tha the presentation could not be adapted to the situation and the needs of the learners. Learning improv has helped me to be able to teach from notes and tailor the presentation to the group and environment.
  • Unexpected changes. No matter how well one prepares for a class, a presentation, a speech, or a meeting, things can go wrong. Some people get frustrated with that. Improv experience enables the quick thinking necessary to recover quickly
  • The best I can do here is relate a story as an example. Some years ago an instructor for a course became ill a few days before and could not teach the class. My manager called and asked me to teach it, but I was only free the first day. A friend was only free for day two. That meant we’d do a sort of “tag team.”I did the first day, and she did the second. We didn’t have an opportunity to talk between the two days due to our travel (and we didn’t have mobile phones back then).I told the class a couple times during the first day that my friend would share some particular stories about her experience in the topic. I felt comfortable because I knew her well enough, and because we’d worked closely enough, that I knew what she’d share. She did indeed share those stories to the amazement of the class that found it hard to believe that we hadn’t coordinated.

    To make it even more interesting, she referred to stories I’d told them. She just knew what I’d say.It is that kind of trust that improv helps build or perhaps helps gives the internal strength to rely on that trust.

When I lead a meeting or facilitate a discussion, it’s a lot like an improv game. The biggest difference is that some people prepare for the topic at hand. A facilitator has to keep the group on track and manage the event without taking sides or trying to influence the decision. The “Yes, and” improv game is good training for this.

YES, And

Teambuilding and Onboarding

Teambuilding and onboarding events benefit especially from the actual learning of improv as well as from the practicing of it. As people learn improvisational skills, they learn to develop the deep listening skills in a fun way. It sure beats the traditional role plays.

Likewise, they learn to trust their (new) co-workers. As they learn to listen and deliver subsequent dialog and actions, they learn to trust those who deliver lines that precede theirs to feed them lines they can use and build upon. If the games are chosen well, the experiential learning can be enjoyable not just for those “performing,” but for the “audience” as well.

What To Do Next

First, please tweet me at @jjmcdermott and tell me about your improv experiences.

Second, consider taking an improv class if you haven’t. It’s a fun and valuable experience.

Finally, think about improv training for your team or group. It really does help build team strength.

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