How an improv class can help develop essential business skills

Improvisational theatre is moving into business schools and boardrooms. Discover how it can help finance professionals develop soft skills and more.
Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe, shown here, has expanded into providing training for corporate clients.
Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe, shown here, has expanded into providing training for corporate clients.

Improvisational theatre, the art of creating scenes and stories out of given suggestions, is a long-standing form of entertainment. Silly, surreal, scriptless scenes on stage have made the art form popular, showcased on programmes such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? in the UK and US.

Improv has long been considered one of the essential elements of many an actor's toolkit. Increasingly, professionals in other industries are getting in on the act, finding improv to be a valuable skill to promote entrepreneurship, nurture creativity, and build leadership skills. Finance professionals are making improv classes part of their own personal development plan, with listening skills, and the ability to read body language and to think on your feet among the benefits.

Improv can be about finding ways to convey your story to nonfinance colleagues in a way that makes sense to them, and to convince people that this is the best way to go. More broadly, it's about how we work with others, how we notice other people's feelings and stay truly in the moment, said Neil Mullarkey, co-founder of the Comedy Store Players, who draws on decades of experience as a performer to train professionals in improv for business skills.

"When you have better soft skills, you can tell your story more effectively, and you'll get more respect for your technical skills," he said.

Here are some of the skills an improv workshop can help hone.

LISTENING

The most important skill needed in improv is listening. To build a scene or narrative with someone, you have to listen to the "offers," or building blocks, fellow players are giving you and incorporate those elements into your response, no matter how surreal or incongruous they might seem. Someone who is not listening, or trying to deliver their own jokes, cuts off the scene.

Translated into a business context, listening skills are vital to a business-partnering approach. Only by listening can you understand the other person's goals and objectives, and from there help them make decisions and warn them of any pitfalls.

Just like in an improv sketch, "the more we can link what we say to what others say, the better," Mullarkey explained. In a business context, this approach helps persuade, influence, and build rapport.

BODY LANGUAGE

Joel Vander Weele, CPA, CGMA, first tried his hand at improv in a workshop with Chicago-based troupe Second City more than ten years ago. He immediately saw its potential as a development tool and now uses improv skills every day in his professional life at Deloitte Consulting. Participating in an improv workshop with colleagues helps you read and understand their responses to situations. Nonverbal clues such as posture, facial expressions, and the amount of eye contact can speak volumes. "If you are going down a line in a skit that the rest of the group isn't ready for, or receptive to, you'll see that in their body language," Vander Weele said.

The "one-sentence story" exercise provides similar clues. Each participant contributes a single sentence in turn, with the aim of building a coherent narrative. The story "gets pretty crazy, and you can see the next person in line struggling to think of what their sentence is going to be", Vander Weele added.

This experience helps in meetings later on. Vander Weele can see other participants' discomfort with the direction of the conversation and make suggestions as to where to take it next. Participants in a meeting may be from several different parts of Deloitte. "If, as a team, we have practised some improv, I have a better ability to read that individual," Vander Weele said. "It's just a more effective way to collaborate if I understand what the other person is thinking." (See the sidebar "What to Look For" in which Vander Weele discusses how to choose an improv trainer for your team or company.)

COMMUNICATING INSIGHT EFFECTIVELY

Mullarkey has led many workshops for finance professionals, including accountants on the path to becoming partners who needed to become more entrepreneurial.

All finance professionals "get to a certain position where they need to deliver information, tell stories, engage with people, and use their technical knowledge to convince them "˜this is what we should do'", Mullarkey said.

"Being comfortable speaking in public, quick on your feet, all those drills that you do in improv can help all of us build our soft skills," Vander Weele explained.

Improv helps build those skills, as well as ease with situations you're not prepared for — whether an impromptu conversation in the corridor or an unexpected question after a presentation. Practice helps you be in the right state to cope with the unexpected and come across as credible, rather than panic-stricken.

It also helps explore questions such as, "How do we bring a finance perspective together with other departments' goals and objectives?" and "How do we make finance a "˜yes, and' function?"

'YES, AND ... '

For Vander Weele, the most valuable benefit of the improv mindset for business is the principle of "yes, and ... ".

In an improv scene, you accept the idea, or "offer" made to you by your counterpart, which might be: "Let's go to the beach." And you add to it by saying, "Yes, and we can bring my new pet unicorn. He'd love to see the sea." The important thing is that you accept the proposal and then contribute another element to help flesh out the idea and move the story on.

"If you're having a conversation with a client and they ask you to do something impossible and they want you to do it by Tuesday," the best option is to start your response with a "yes, and," Vander Weele said. "Say, "˜Yes, and perhaps we can review the scope of that request to make sure we can bring it in on time.' Saying, "˜No, that's not something we can do,' shuts down the conversation. "˜Yes, and' keeps building on it."

At Deloitte Consulting, based in Chicago, Vander Weele regularly brings in teams from Second City or Improv-Olympic to work on these skills with his staff.

TEAM BUILDING

A workshop can also serve as a team-building activity (see the sidebar "Games and Exercises You Might Try in an Improv Workshop" for examples of the types of activities a workshop might include). Improv is about collaboration, rather than competition. "You look good by making others look good," Mullarkey said. Everyone, regardless of their status back in the office, contributes suggestions and ideas and finds it rewarding to see them taken up. Teams gain a sense of pride from developing a narrative together. While there is no pressure to be funny, it often turns out that way, and laughter is unifying. Mullarkey observes that teams he works with often haven't had much opportunity to laugh together before.

Improv also promotes creative thinking and helps silence participants' inner critics, says Peter Margaritis, CPA, CGMA. Margaritis uses improv games and techniques to help companies find solutions to challenges they are facing. "In improv, bad ideas are just bridges to good ideas," he said. "No ideas lead to nothing." (See the sidebar "Reasons to Embrace Improv".)

THE BUSINESS SCHOOL PERSPECTIVE

Business schools such as Ashridge Executive Education and Cass Business School in the UK, and Duke University and Stanford University in the US, are including improv on their curriculum to help future leaders cope with a rapidly changing environment. Author Mike Bonifer has described improv as the 21st century technology because it enables one to be flexible and adaptable, to spot opportunities, and to let go of what isn't working.

Improv pioneer Keith Johnstone said that to become a good improviser, you need to let go of the fear of being seen as mad, bad, or wrong. This idea of, "What will people think of me if I say X" is a big block for people in business. But some of the ideas that have seemed mad or wrong are the ones that change the world, Mullarkey explained.

Listening, exploring ideas and giving them a chance, and accepting offers from people around you all help people deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Businesses need budgets, deadlines, and a strategy, but there's got to be some flexibility within that so you can take up any opportunities that arise. You need to make a plan but hold it lightly, explained Mullarkey.

"In improv you might have a set idea of where the story should go, but then you have to discard most of that as soon as you hear what the person before you has to say. You hold the idea lightly and don't feel defeated because what you thought was a [scene in a] book shop has suddenly turned into a tailor's, because actually there's something interesting about the tailor's scenario," he added.

"Or, I thought this meeting was about cuts, and it turns out we are going to talk about investments. The improviser is not panic-stricken because he or she knows that the best thing to do is be with the other person, physically and emotionally. What is he or she saying to me? How can we look for a win-win? And the more we can link what we say to what they say, the better," Mullarkey continued.

The Ashridge class focuses on "saying yes to the mess".

Too often in a conversation about strategy or creativity, people feel they have to pick one idea to run with, and decide too early. When you start an improv scene, many elements are in play. It's a little unfocused. In either context, the focus eventually gets defined, but that period of exploration or experimentation is vital; it lets you know what you eventually decide on is solid, explained Mullarkey.

Ashridge lecturers also talk about a leader being in charge, not in control. Too often people think the leader should know everything and tell everyone what to do. But a really great leader, who is looking to the future and being innovative, knows that sometimes their job is to ask the right questions: providing staff with minimal structure and maximum autonomy.


Games and exercises you might try in an improv workshop

Alphabet game: Two people are given a couple of elements with which to build a scene — for example, the nature of their relationship to each other and a reason they might have an argument. They are then invited to have that conversation — each sentence has to start with the subsequent letter in the alphabet.

One-sentence story: Standing in a circle, the group aims to build a scene around a given stimulus — a famous person and an object or destination, for instance. Participants take turns building the narrative, each adding one sentence at a time.

Last word spoken: Two people have a conversation and person B has to start a sentence with the last word person A said, and vice versa. Peter Margaritis, CPA, CGMA, said this exercise proves particularly popular with participants in his workshops. "It teaches us that you have to listen to the entire dialogue because maybe the last words that are spoken [in a workplace conversation] are the most important, and it's easy to miss something critical."

All of these exercises require participants to be focused, in the moment, and agile enough to respond to what their counterpart just said, even if they were expecting something completely different.


Reasons to embrace improv

  • In a scene, you can become whatever character you want — a pirate, an astronaut, a ballerina. There are no restrictions. You need no previous knowledge or experience to participate, just your imagination.
  • For those with an exacting profession, a few hours in an environment where the first thing that pops into your head is the right answer can prove cathartic and refreshing.
  • Check listings sites such as MeetUp.com to find an improv group or class in your area.

What to look for

Joel Vander Weele, CPA, CGMA, who says he uses improv skills every day in his professional life at Deloitte Consulting, outlines what you should look for in a training provider if you think your team would enjoy and/or benefit from an improv session:

  • The quality of the group matters. Do some research, talk to other business professionals in your area about the organisations, and read reviews online.
  • Improv workshops can be tailored to focus on building rapport, storytelling, and team building. Discuss your requirements with the provider and ensure the curriculum focuses on specific improv for business skills. "Any kind of workshop should include a description of "yes, and,' one-sentence stories, things like that," Vander Weele said.
  • If you are in a small metropolitan area, you might not have a professional improv group locally, but some providers will send trainers to your location.