Using Rules of Improv Comedy to Build a Better Business

Posted on by wordqueens

If you’re serious about your business, you can learn a lot from improvisational comedy.

I’ve taken several improv classes at Stevie Ray’s School of Improv in Minneapolis.  I went in to my first one feeling very confident.  After all, creative use of language is one of my greatest strengths, and people are always commenting on how quick-witted I am.  Improv was obviously going to be a piece of cake.

What was I thinking?!?

The most memorable lesson I learned was this: Beginning improv is an excellent way to develop humility.

However, I also learned that, far from being a free-for-all, good improv actually follows clear rules.  Applying these rules in an improv class enables you to progress from deer-in-the-headlights mode to feeling fairly confident that you can actually avoid public humiliation.  As I progressed through my classes, I realized these rules of improv could profitably be re-named Rules of Smart Business.

1.      Trust yourself and your partner(s).  This is sometimes easier said than done. As entrepreneurs, we’re committed to doing what’s right for our businesses, but we sometimes second-guess ourselves.  However, when you choose to trust yourself and your own capabilities, you create a positive Pygmalion effect; that is, you tend to get positive results because you trust that you’ll figure out a way to create them.  As for trusting your “partners”, I feel that can refer not only to your actual business partner (if any), but also to your referral partners, strategic allies, vendors, prospects, and customers.

2.      Think “Yes, and…”.  Put another way, “Don’t negate or deny.”  This is absolutely one of my favorites.  It means to accept whatever is thrown at you and build on it.  Nothing will stop an improv scene deader quicker than having one performer toss out an idea and having her partner say, in effect, “No, I won’t work with that.”  In the business world, this may sound like “We tried that once and it flopped” or the more subtle (but equally squashing) “Yes, but…”.

3.      Listen, watch, and concentrate.  This rule can be particularly challenging to follow.  Entrepreneurs are typically very creative and very curious.  While these traits can be immensely useful, the downside of them is what is often called Shiny Object Syndrome, or—as I like to put it—Squirrel!! *  We can be developing one new product, or creating a nurturing campaign for existing clients, or working on a new professional-development activity when, all of a sudden, some other exciting thing catches our eye, and off we go.  In both professional and personal settings, far better results will come from taking a focused, “be here now” attitude.  So few people are skilled at listening, watching, and concentrating that those who are  skilled at these activities have a strong competitive advantage.  *(If you haven’t yet watched the movie Up, I strongly encourage you to do so this weekend; that way you, too, can learn why using “squirrel” as a verb makes perfect sense.)

4.      Don’t ask questions, make statements.  You get to be careful in how you apply this particular rule of improv to your business; it’s not  one you can apply indiscriminately.  (For example, you do yourself and your clients a huge favor when you do  ask clarifying questions to ensure that you understand exactly what outcomes they want you to produce.)  To my mind, the value of this rule is found in the realm of visioning and goal setting.  When you state what goal you intend to achieve in your business, this strong declaration serves to get the energy and creative juices flowing so that you can, in fact, create that outcome.

5.      Make assumptions.  This is another tricky one, because you need to be careful about what type of assumptions you make, and when.  Things you don’t assume: that you know what your partner (client) wants; that you’ve understood what they mean despite not having clarified the meaning with them; that all parts of a project are progressing on schedule.  However, you do assume that you—and your partners/team/client—are smart enough to figure out how to create the desired outcome.  It’s amazing how assuming that there’s a way to get what you (or your client) want acts as mental WD-40, loosening your old habits of thinking and enabling you to tap greater creativity than you perhaps had given yourself credit for.

6.      Give and take.  Far too many people come across as desperately trying to take-take-take anything they can get.  Certainly a business owner who provides great value deserves to receive great compensation for it.  However, if we get caught up in thinking only  of ourselves, our clients will stop giving us anything to take.  Giving and taking are best done in balance.

7.      Make “actional” choices.  In an improv scene, this means physically moving to introduce some action into the scene.  This not only gives you time to think, but physical activity keeps the audience engaged.  As entrepreneurs, we can put this rule to especially good use when we’re feeling stuck in our thinking.  Taking a stretch break, walking around the block, or even just playing with your pet can often help you break free of the barrier that stymied your progress.

8.      Work to the top of your intelligence.  In improv terms, this means choosing to avoid the obvious (and often crass) response to a comment your partner has made and instead choosing to challenge yourself to NOT take the easy way out.  In a business setting, it’s sometimes tempting to say that the service or product we’ve provided is “good enough”.  Often times that’s true, and it’s a way to avoid falling prey to perfectionism.  However, if we find ourselves frequently performing at a level that’s merely good enough, we risk losing a great deal: customers who get tired of slowly declining quality, our competitive edge, pride in our work.  That’s a high price to pay to make life easier in the short run.

Bonus Rule:  Make your partner look good.  (I created this rule myself.)  Assuming you do, indeed, follow Rule #1 by trusting yourself and your partner, it becomes easier to follow this Bonus Rule.  If you’re doing an improv scene with another person and focus on making her look good, you get to trust that she will be focused on making you look good.  This has several advantages. It allows you to lose any self-consciousness, because it’s not about you—it’s about your partner.  It moves the scene forward, because you’re actively collaborating, not competing.  It creates hugely positive energy.  It encourages risk taking, because each person knows her partner has her back.  Think of the huge leaps forward you could make in your business relationships if this were your underlying attitude.

Serious about your business success?  Maybe it’s time to improve through improv.

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