Making It Up on the Spot: How Improv Comedy Creates Leaders

Making It Up on the Spot: How Improv Comedy Creates Leaders

Create October 26, 2015 / By Jordana Cole
Making It Up on the Spot: How Improv Comedy Creates Leaders

Beyond the fun and the thrills, improv has made me a better leader. It cultivates authenticity, teamwork, creativity, agility and growth mindsets!

"Can I have a non-geographic location?"

Who knew almost 20 years ago that this one phrase would shape my life.

My passion for improv comedy began back in high school. After exhausting the thrilling options of teenage suburban life in New Jersey's malls and movie theaters, my friend Andrew and I began exploring other ways to fill our time and happened upon a short form comedy troupe called the "Improv Jam" in a small coffee house in Red Bank, NJ. After one show, I was hooked. Andrew and I became regular audience members, and I was always at the ready to yell out a suggestion or serve as an audience volunteer.

Upon starting college, I came across a flyer for auditions for an improv troupe, which Andrew enthusiastically encouraged me to attend. That first casting started my journey from fan to improviser that has evolved ever since, creating lasting friendships, many memories, and a lot of fun and learning along the way.

Earlier this month, I celebrated my 8th anniversary as a member of the Washington DC ComedySportz troupe, capped off with my first ever attendance and performance at the ComedySportz World Championship in Quad Cities, Illinois. Spending a week with 200+ fellow improvisers from across the country was like coming home to my larger, long lost family. It was energizing, inspiring, and filled with laughter. Most of all, it was thought provoking.

Improv is a lot of fun. It can be wacky, loud, physical, expressive (at least when I am doing it). It's thrilling and frightening to make something up on the spot. And beyond the fun and the thrills, it's embedded in who I am. It's provided me with skills and tools that I use more than anything else in my professional day to day life. It’s enabled me to become a better leader. And I can attribute my success thus far to the many lessons it's taught me, which include the following:

Be Your Authentic Self and Play to Your Strengths: You can only succeed by being true to who you are as a performer. I am loud, expressive, and character driven. Being who am is what drives laughs and accelerates scenes with my partner. If I try to focus a show on increasing my verbal cleverness, I might get some laughs, but my performance will never be as strong as when I am true to myself. And, I will be so focused on my area of improvement, that I will likely not be fully present thus missing out on my teammate's needs and contributions. By being true to the strengths I bring to performances, I can find teammates who heighten my abilities to create a great scene and who I can complement in turn, which brings me to my next lesson...

I am One Part of a Larger Whole: Improv is all about teamwork. My scene will only work based on my collaboration with the larger ensemble. It's the collection of our individual components and talents that lead to shared greatness and success. Everyone plays a part. Sometimes the strongest scenes are due to the specific background roles individuals take to create a richer picture or reality. The successful improviser adds on to the world or idea that their teammates have created for them; they don't try to force the one solely in their head.

Scenes don't work when you derail what's been started by trying to force your pre-determined idea, thus ignoring the group. When you realize that, you treat everything your scene partner gives you as a gift, with acceptance and an approach to heightening it ("yes and") rather than negating it ("no" or "yes, but").  "Yes and" is the core tenet of improv and it can strongly apply to work.  Whether it's clients, colleagues, or your team, your approach should be to be fully present to listen to their idea and look for an opportunity to build off of it, rather than looking for a time to negatively interject so that you can move to your own idea. The group that you are interacting with will feel heard, regardless of what happens. You will have a heightened awareness to their needs and contributions, making it easier for you to tailor your approach to bring out the best in others. Even if it's an idea that you don't initially agree with, by building or heightening, you are able to contribute to and then shape the idea collaboratively, evolving it beyond its initial intention. "Yes and" also allows you to steer the idea through potential pitfalls in a positive way. It's a fluid process without a set agenda, allowing you to build off what is emerging organically. Which leads us to....

The Only Thing We Can Prepare For is that the Unexpected Will Happen: Improv, more than anything, has shown me the difference between what I think I can control and what I can actually control. I can come up with a brilliant idea to start a scene, only to see it disappear the second I step onto the stage and someone else opens their mouth. In improv, I need to be willing to go anywhere and do anything for the greater good of the team and the audience. Due to the dynamism of the environment and the constant feedback loop I receive from my scene partners and the audience, I need to be able to quickly take risks, portray confidence with the unknown, and be agile and open-minded in the face of change. Pairing these skills with being present enables me to make minute course corrections on the spot based on new information I am receiving in order to achieve greater success. And what happens if the choice I make isn’t the right one? Well…

It’s Okay to Fail:  In the midst of a show, you realize that you, as a performer, sit and stew with failure much longer than the audience does. And often, the failure resonates with you more loudly than it does with them. How you react to that failure influences how others view it. I can own the failure and move on, looking at it as a learning opportunity where I can apply my new knowledge to improve and create greater success. Or, I can I dwell in its negativity,focusing on what could have been, and ignoring what my team needs - thereby completely derailing the scene or even the rest of the show (depending on how long it festers). Ultimately, that failure means I tried something new and learned from it. And, what's the worst that can happen if I do fail? The scene will be over in 2 minutes and we’ll be ready to move on to the next one. If that’s a strong scene, the audience will forget the dud from 5 minutes ago.  I need to remind myself of that constantly.

As I've reflected on the leaders that I have admired and who have inspired me professionally, I've come to realize that despite their varied backgrounds and personalities that they all embody the improv principles above. If you want to begin exploring how you can use improv to enhance your leadership skills, I'd recommend exploring the following resources:

Yes, And by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton
Jill and Patrick's Small Book of Improv for Business by Patrick Short and Jill Bernard
Yes Please by Amy Poehler

ComedySportz (franchises in cities around the country)
Upright Citizen's Brigade (New York and LA)
Second City (Chicago)
Visit the websites of your local comedy clubs, local community colleges, or adult education programs (often sponsored by your county)

Article originally appeard at LinkedIn

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