Making It Up Along the Way

I took some improv classes with a friend a few years ago. I forget why, exactly, but it was an amazing experience. I still use many of the techniques today with my team. Sometimes it’s funny, but mostly it’s to get through situations that arise where I haven’t had the luxury of pre-thought.

Notice I said pre-thought, not preparation. The musicians and comedians who excel in improvisation may not think through the details their performance, but they are always prepared. Their minds are always on and they are brave enough to be flexible, generous and prepared to improvise.

Here are a few rules to improv that I use daily:

  • Yes/And – Many managers or collaborators need to hear a full idea before they’re comfortable jumping in. But any idea, any part of an idea, is an opportunity to catch a train that’s already on the tracks. Add to the idea in a way that helps lead the contributor to providing more information than you thought was there. Asking leading questions is a great way to pull more out of them, then add your own details. Soon, you’ll have an idea you’re both excited about.
  • Pick A Character – Sometimes the missing piece is context. When you’re curious who this idea is targeting, pick a character and be them. How would a single mom react? What would a college student say? How would dad react? You can provide context by picking a character and hearing the pitch. It’s also a great way to endear yourself to your teammates. Or just look like a jackass.
  • Listening – The key to improv isn’t always being ready to talk. It always being available to listen. Get out of the office, dump the email and cut your meetings down. With your extra time, sit in the same space and peek over the shoulders of the people with the ideas. You’d be surprised what they’re willing, and trying, to say.
  • Props – Not the Carrot Top kinda props. Encouragement. Many ideas are like chicks being hatched. They need a little encouragement to get out of the shell. Even if the idea isn’t going to fly, acknowledging the effort and letting people know that you’re fostering a culture of idea generation goes a long way.

You may never make it to Second City, but you can make it up along the way. There is a way to improvise and be authentic at the same time. Preparation is the key.