One of the most important things you can do for your professional development is to get some improv training. I studied improv for several years at Chicago’s Second City Training Center and it changed my life.
Improv made me a better communicator, a better team member and a better (and braver) person.
Someone in your community is teaching improv — a theater group, comedy troupe or community college — and these days you can even find classes online. Seek them out and sign up. You will not be disappointed.
Here are some of the things improv training can do for you and your career.
1. Become a Better Listener
Listening — truly listening — requires intense focus on what’s going on around you. When you’re in a big improv scene with multiple characters, keeping track of details large (am I that person’s husband or son?) and small (did I just walk through an invisible couch that’s been established?) is vital.
In our classes, we’d spend hours and hours building this fundamental muscle. It’s hard work, but it pays off.
2. Free Your Mind
One of the biggest mistakes beginning improvisers make is entering a scene with a pre-planned idea of where it will go. They’ll try to control the direction or awkwardly shoehorn a carefully crafted one-liner into a place where it doesn’t fit.
In the same way, it’s important to occasionally let go of your pre-conceived notions and see where a conversation or meeting takes you. Tune in especially to what people are really saying, versus what you’d expect or like to hear.
3. Be Constructive
An important rule of improv is “yes, and.” It means that when another performer introduces an idea on stage, you agree and build on it.
So if your scene partner says, “Man, it’s hot in here,” you don’t say, “What do you mean? This meat locker is freezing!” That stops the story in its tracks.
But if you instead follow the lead of Second City alum and comic genius Tina Fey (in her wonderful book “Bossypants”) you might reply, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Suddenly you have a fun premise to build upon.
Don’t be the person who shoots down every idea. It’s easy to throw up roadblocks — choose instead to be constructive. Find the kernel of value and build on that.
4. Be a True Team Player
In improv, your main mission is to make your scene partner look good. If they look good, you look good and the whole ensemble looks good.
So you support them by building on their ideas, shining the spotlight on them and offering the occasional “gift” of a clever suggestion or action that powers the scene.
In the workplace that means putting ego aside, lifting others up and sharing credit for successes.
5. Embrace the Supporting Role
Improv training teaches you that there are no small parts. Sometimes a scene’s entire success hinges on a simple and perfectly timed “walk-on” part or a single line of dialogue that drives the action forward or sends it in an exciting new direction.
And sometimes? You have to stand there and play a tree in the background.
The lesson for the workplace: every role on the team is important, and there’s no shame in taking on those less glamorous, but critical, tasks. So when necessary, be the best damn tree you can be!
6. Project Positive Energy
Your words and actions set the tone for those around you.
Mick Napier, who directed many of the future stars we know from SNL, offers advice for actors in rehearsals that applies to all of us in how we “show up” on a daily basis.
In his book “Improvise,” he says, “Be someone who isn’t tired. I’ve seen too many people say they’re tired at the beginning of a rehearsal and then spend the next three hours proving it to everyone around them.”
We’re all tired, cranky and frustrated these days. Stand out by pushing through it.
I love this wisdom from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.”
7. Be Bold
Napier also advises, “Forget your fear” (he actually uses a different “F” word, but you get the point). “We want to see your power, not your fear. Nobody has time for your fear.”
When confronted with a challenge, it’s one thing to share your anxiety with a close colleague, but it’s another to telegraph it to all around you. It becomes self-perpetuating and undermines people’s confidence in you.
“Be someone who will try anything,” he says. Or at least consider it.
8. Put Your Whole Self In
Improv teaches you to activate your entire being — mentally, emotionally and physically.
If you want to be more compelling and persuasive and connect better with others, use it all. Be open emotionally, share your experiences and stories, be expansive in expression and gesture.
9. Let Go of Your Ego
Improv training will significantly raise your threshold for embarrassment. Take it from someone who’s played a cat — with a German accent — coughing up a hairball! In comparison to that, life’s everyday foibles and fumbles hardly rank.
Understand that you will make mistakes, be embarrassed and feel awkward. Beating yourself up is your ego talking.
Simply acknowledging an error and moving on demonstrates confidence and poise.
10. Think on Your Feet
I put this lesson last even though it’s probably the #1 thing that comes to mind when people think about improv.
I’m sorry to report that there’s no easy answer here. Thinking on your feet is about everything I just discussed — tuning in to those around you, freeing your mind, opening yourself to possibilities and ignoring your fear.
And practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Take the Leap
When I speak to groups I’ll often ask if anyone has ever studied improv. Inevitably, at least one hand goes up — often several. And to a person, they all enthusiastically agree that their training has helped improve their lives and careers in multiple ways.
So don’t just take my word for it. Survey those around you and ask them to share their experiences. When you’re ready, take the leap.
Better yet? Leap before you’re ready!
I have never met a person who regretted their improv training.
[Image: personal photo of me in action]
[A version of this post originally appeared in PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics]