Improv the Situation

ImprovEditor’s Note: Larry Falck, coordinator of digital media at Francis Marion University, earned a Red Stapler for best presentation in its track at #heweb15 with “Improv the Situation.” Larry was kind enough to create an adaptation in blog form with Link.

Nothing in life is scripted. We walk through the days, weeks, and years stumbling upon new situations, new challenges. How can we better our chances of navigating smoothly? I suggest the theatrical style of improvisation, or improv.

What is improv? Simply put, improv is “acting in which no script is used.” This can be done in front of an audience or in private; for script development; or acting exercises and training.

There are two forms of improv: short form and long form. Short form is just that, shorter. “Much of the comedy is found in the pure spontaneity of the moment, risk is taken by the improviser,” according to Obviously Unrehearsed Improv. Long form is longer and story-based. It is focused on developing a character and the plot. “Much of the comedy in long form is from connections made in the story, layers of meaning, and enjoyment of a character,” OUI adds.

Short form is the more popular form of improv, especially because of the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway. Even though improv is made up on the spot, it is not without rules. Improv isn’t rehearsed, but it is practiced. I use the analogy that it’s like sports. In sports, teams practice their plays and know the rules of the game. Though once they are out on the field, court or rink they cannot control what the circumstances will be. They can run the play as they practiced it, but the other team will counter with the unknown and they have to adapt to environmental conditions. It’s the same in improv. The actors may know the rules of the game they are playing, but they don’t know the ideas that will be thrown to them by the audience, or the other actors.

The value of listening

The main rule in improv, as in life, is to listen. Not only listen, but pay attention. Acting is reacting. So in order to react, one must know what they are reacting to. This applies to both verbal and non-verbal communications.

The other rules for improv come from They are:

  1. Don’t deny (Yes, and…)
  2. Don’t ask open-ended questions (Ex: Who are you?)
  3. You don’t have to be funny
  4. You can look good if you make your partner look good
  5. Tell a story

I won’t go in-depth to each rule here; they do that on the improv encyclopedia site.

Improv in business

What I will do is cover each one as they apply to a business environment. But, first, we need to discuss whether improv applies to business. Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Communications, sums it up perfectly. “So much of business – like life itself – is one big act of improv. People make plans but, if they accept that there’s a whole bunch of stuff they can’t control, then most of what they’re doing is improvising,” the Business Innovation Factory notes.

Yes, improv can be used to improve employee’s work and interaction in the workplace as a training tool to strengthen:

  • Communications – Between team members, or the team and clients.
  • Teambuilding – Learn strengths and weaknesses. Way they think/process.
  • Brainstorming (helping create) – Taking the ideas of others and building, offering your own ideas.
  • Testing – Creating scenarios and seeing where they go.

After listening, the first rule of improv is “Yes, and…”, taking an idea and building on it. This is good for brainstorming and flushing out ideas from scratch. But you need to be careful not to go too far down dead-end roads. You have to reign yourself in sometimes.

“Yes, and…” can be bad in certain business situations, though. If a colleague approaches you with an idea that they think is absolutely wonderful but you know isn’t feasible, you don’t want to tell them yes. Instead, I suggest “OK, but…” (or something similar). You acknowledge that you’ve heard their idea and haven’t completely blown them off. But, that the idea may not work in the situation, and you’re going to offer an alternative idea that could work better.

The next rule is, “don’t ask open-ended questions.” In business we do want to ask open-ended questions. We want to gather as much information from others so we can tailor our work to their needs. Don’t come into a meeting with preconceived notions, but you can know the “rules.” Use the questions to steer the conversation to the best solution for what they want. But, again, listen to what they are saying.

It’s about teamwork

I’ve put “you don’t have to be funny” and “you can look good if you make your partner look good” together. Don’t be out just for yourself. Also, you want to work hard as part of a team, but not so hard that the other members are going to sit back and let you do all the work. Everyone must be accountable.

You also want to make sure that everyone stays on task. Watch out for scope creep or tangents. That being said, sometimes the best ideas come out of nowhere. Or, ideas might come up that don’t serve the currently discussed issue, but do address a different one. Don’t shoot down others’ ideas. Make sure everyone’s ideas are heard and considered. Encourage participation. Don’t hold back what you think are bad ideas, as they could be developed into something workable. Along the same vein, allow your ideas to be developed. Don’t hold them close to the hip. Yes, they are your baby, but babies need to grow.

How does “tell a story” apply? When talking to someone, you want to give as many details as possible, but in a clear and concise way. Give examples of similar situations or projects. In improv, we make the situation work, no matter what ideas are thrown our way. That’s not necessarily the best thing in real life. You must find the solution that works best for those you are helping. We, obviously, want the best we can get, be that equipment or employees. But, sometimes we have to work with what we have. So what do we have to do? Improvise!

Have an idea that would make a fabulous presentation at #heweb16 in Memphis? Submit it by March 28! Improvisation experience not required.

Photo Credit: 3V Photo via Compfight cc