Why every business should follow the rules of comedy improv

Doing comedy improvisation on a weekly basis is my favourite outlet for creative expression. Many people confuse comedy improv with stand-up comedy. Other than requiring a stage and audience, the two formats are very different.

Firstly, stand-up comedy usually involves one performer and the majority of the material is prepared. Comedy improv is completely unscripted, requires at least two people and the audience is often invited to suggest a theme or topic to kickstart the performance.

Secondly, comedy improvisation is far less about trying to be funny and far more about listening and supporting the people you’re on stage with. The more connected the performers in a scene, the better they play off each other, the more the creativity builds and the comedy just naturally happens.

So what can a business hope to gain from comedy improv? You learn how to think on your feet, work collaboratively, maintain an open mind and leave your ego at the door.    

The purpose of this post is not to advocate that business owners participate in lunchtime comedy performances. What I am proposing is the adoption of a very simple mechanic that forms the bedrock of comedy improvisation. It’s follows the principle of “yes, and..”  

In improv, the “yes” requires you to accept whatever information your scene partner chooses to contribute to the narrative you’re creating. You can’t ignore it or reject it. To do so is considered a block.

If, for example, my scene partner decides to refer to me as her conjoined twin in a scene, then that is what I must be. Supposing I had a different idea, of being her mother-in-law for example and chose to act on that, then the scene falls down because our two ideas are completely contradicting each other.

Planning your own story before your scene partner is about to speak proves futile for two reasons – firstly it dominates your thinking and interferes with your capacity to listen. Secondly, it may no longer be relevant if your partner says something unexpected which adds a differet twist to the story. You need to be ready.

Improvising requires you to stay very much in the present. It demands attention, active listening, open-mindedness, mental flexibility and creative thinking.

The “and” part of the comedy improvisation ‘algorithm’ requires me to add new information to a scene. After accepting the suggestion of conjoined twin, I must now contribute a new piece of information in return – this helps to add further value to the story and also gives my scene partner something to work with/respond to. For example, I might suggest that we (a) go on a date with someone we met earlier, or (b) sever our connection and seek an independent life or (c) have a game of chess. If I simply say “yes, right, hello conjoined twin”, I’m not adding anything new and as a result making you, my scene partner, do all the creative thinking.

So let’s cut back to a business context.

People communicate a lot in very subtle ways – little nuances, body language, side comments, murmurs, tone of voice, facial reactions – detail that often go unnoticed. Applying a comedy improvisation mindset to meetings can be very powerful. The more attentive and present you are, the more insight and value you can bring to your responses and the more your client, team member, sales prospect feels truly heard.

When it comes to planning meetings, debriefs or brainstorms, how many times does it happen when someone puts an idea forward and it’s greeted with “yes, but..” or  “yes, or..”?  Suggestions are often quashed by louder voices before they’re given a chance to breathe.

By applying the concept of “yes, and” to every suggestion, it forces every idea to be considered and developed to see where it goes before saying no. This creates a more inclusive, collaborative atmosphere with less negatives, barriers and blocks. Hearing ideas acknowledged and considered encourages less confident team members to share their own thoughts without fear of judgement or rejection. Many design sprints follow a similar principle of open ideation to maxmise the creative process and collaboratively arrive upon the best solutions.

If you’re looking for a fast-track route to becoming a better listener, a better leader and a more innovative thinker, enrol in a workshop of comedy improvisation. It won’t upgrade your jokes but it will improve how you think, communicate and connect with other people.

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