The need to improvise

whoselineisit3I had the pleasure of attending an improvisation course (beginner level) this weekend, organised in Manchester by ComedySportz. My friend John Cooper (a comedian of some standing – stand up?) told me about it and his partner Bron signed me up for the 8-week course at the Comedy Store, Deansgate. The course was clearly popular with about 20+ participants from all walks of life, and I was interested to learn why they were doing it. Some were there to develop confidence, some to spruce up their acting skills and others just for the sheer fun of it.

Chris Johnston, author of ‘The Improvisation Game: discovering the secrets of spontaneous performance’, explains why we might benefit from improv. In his view, it’s for…

  • Researching ourselves, increasing self-knowledge and exploring our capabilities.
  • Learning how to communicate better with each other, to manage our emotions and develop our basic life skills.
  • Learning how to understand, manage and reconcile conflict.
  • Fun!

Like many others, I’ve watched and enjoyed shows like ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’, admiring the spontaneity and confidence of the performers. But as I watched, listened and participated in the session yesterday, I began to see some really valuable lessons, skills I could develop and perhaps coach in others too.

Lesson 1 – Communication skills (verbal and non)

A lot of the games in improv require you to watch and listen intently to the other protagonists. You might have to pass on a story, or a movement to another, or have it passed to you. You’re looking for signs, for signals both in terms of what is said and the facial and body movements made by the other. Sales people are told to look for buying signals, but this is tough if you’re trying to think of what YOU’RE going to say next. As they say in improv, the more you listen the better you become at picking up ‘offers’, things you can develop. Now that’s a fantastic for selling skills.

Lesson 2 – Loosening up

Making an idiot of yourself is positively encouraged in improv! But for most of us in everyday life, the fear of getting something wrong or being laughed at encourages a no-risk strategy. We’ll play it safe, save it for another time, let the others go first. Improv encourages free expression, a let-loose, have-a-go attitude. There are some rules but they’re few and far between and are designed to stimulate exploration and possibility.

Lesson 3 – Imagination

When a group of 8 people on a stage are asked to make an elephant, you see team work and creativity in action! (I was the tail BTW). When you’re asked to pass on a story from one person to another, your imagination can run wild. You have freedom to take the story which ever way you like. It’s wonderfully liberating and can have an extraordinary impact on otherwise non-creative thinkers.

Lesson 4 – Thinking on your feet

A great skill to have in ALL walks of life, and certainly one of the key traits of the improv pro. Imagine doing your next Powerpoint presentation – with no projector (the bulb blows!). If you know your subject and you have a story to tell, you can do it – and the funny thing is it would probably be better for it. A wonderful trait to develop for dealing with the curved balls life throws at us.

Lesson 5 – The Yes &… principle

Apparently the most important rule of improv. Rather than going against an opening line “Shall we go out tonight?” by replying, “No”, you’d be encouraged to answer in the affirmative BUT to build on it…

“Shall we go out tonight?”

“Yes, and let’s take Bernard too”

“Great idea”

“Of course, we’d better warn him not to do that thing in public”

“Ah yes, it might get embarrassing”

This takes us off into interesting territory, with plenty of comic potential. But in everyday conversation, it’s a great skill to expand and develop themes that are introduced by your partner. It helps to build rapport, enables fact-finding and develops relationships.

Lesson 6 – Storytelling

An essential skill for professional communicators. Human beings are hard-wired to respond to stories, that 3-tiered structure of beginning, middle and end. From rapport-building small talk to formal public speaking, this can move you from good to great.

Lesson 7 – Having fun

And of course laughter is good for the soul and apparently releases all sorts of chemicals in the body that have beneficial effects. When people are having fun, they’re more likely to engage and do things well. Remember that when you’re delivering your next Powerpoint!

Improvisation develops skills that are essential (and in too short supply) to our success as social animals. We see lessons in leadership, team work, communication skills and the exploration of our own capabilities. In a competitive world, it’s often those with the imagination and creativity to think differently that gain advantage and out-perform their rivals.

A simple example…

Take a look at Charlie Todd, director of Improv Everywhere, a company that goes out of its way to ’cause scenes’. In this video clip he talks about two large-scale stunts he orchestrated – the mirror scene on the subway and the people frozen in Grand Central Station. Great fun. Enjoy and start improvising!

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