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Applying improv to life and work

Several months ago, I was having lunch with one of my peers in the fundraising consulting field. And I told him I really wanted to become a better public speaker.

If you have ever heard Ben Bisbee speak, you will understand why I brought this up to him. He’s a dynamic and engaging speaker with lots of energy, and I figured he had some tips he could share.

Without barely blinking an eye, he said: “Take an improv class.”

I thought about it for a minute and realized speaking well is as much about preparation as it is thinking on your feet. So, I went back to the office that afternoon and signed up for an eight-week group improv class at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

I was nervous showing up to my first class. I have spoken many times in public, but I have no experience at all as an actor. My stage appearances are limited to middle school chorus, high school band, some solo, ensemble contests and bar karaoke many years ago.

Then came the first lesson:

Forget* Fear.

(*modified for G-rated audiences.)

Our teacher, Aaron Patterson (a veteran actor and member of Something Dada Improvisational Comedy in Cleveland), told us that the key to learning and getting good at improv was to “forget fear.” As soon as we could do this, he told us we would feel much more comfortable on stage and with our group. I realized that not only does this hold true for being on stage, but it also applies to work and life.

Often fear is what is holding us back. If we forget fear, we open up to new ideas and opportunities, learn more and get better at many things.

And many other lessons followed.

As we progressed through the eight weeks, we did get better. But what surprised me most was how well a group of people who didn’t know each other started to trust each other and work together so quickly. And, each week, I saw how improv applied to other areas of life and work.

Don’t overthink it.

I think the beauty of great improv is that ordinary things become extraordinary. That is because the actors have learned to have open minds and build scenes that are spontaneous and grow organically. (Or, as Aaron says, A+B=Ha Ha.)  Improv requires an open mind and the ability to let thoughts come in and out. But the challenge many of us have is that our personal and work lives are so structured that we forget what spontaneity looks like.

If we learn to just be, some great creativity can occur.

You are much more interesting if you pay attention to the world around you.

After my first few classes, I realized that the some of the best scenes were performed by people who had a keen sense of awareness of the world around them. Having a broad knowledge of pop culture, history, politics, music, sports and more gives you a different view of the world and opens the door to better conversations with others. So, learn something new, get off your social media feed or just read a book. Make yourself interesting.

Today’s the day.

This is probably one of my favorite lessons and it is applicable in so many ways. In improv, you don’t have time to set the stage for an extensive story. Therefore, you must get to the point right away so that the audience doesn’t get bored. Essentially, every scene must start in the now and the story develops from there.

In life and work, many of us are so hung up on what has happened in the past that we never get to what is next. “Today’s the day” is a great approach to so many things. We cannot change what has happened in the past, but we can write our own story starting now, starting today.

Trust the back line and never let the team fail.

Improv is successful when the group is successful. And a successful improv group is one that works together, pays attention to each other and communicates in a way that is supportive of each other. When there is a large improv group, there are often only a limited number of people in a scene. The others form the back line. Depending on the type of game being played, the back line serves as a supporting cast that is there to keep a scene moving. The back line can be an improv actor’s savior in a difficult scene, just like a supportive family or team at work is there when you need them.

We all visualize things differently.

In improv, it’s you, the other actors and a stage. That’s it. No props. So, it’s up to the actors to provide the details and make the story interesting.

In my line of work, we are a high-visual business. What became really clear in improv is that there is often a disconnect between what we see in our mind and what we convey through our actions. What we may see is someone installing a floor - as I thought I saw in a scene with a partner. But in fact, that person may be putting up a tent - which they saw very clearly in their mind. The next time you trying to communicate – whether it is in writing, drawing or video – think about how others will see it. Will they see a floor or a tent?

I didn’t know what to expect when I started my improv class, but I will say that it really has made a positive influence on me in so many ways. I’ve tried new things. I’m learning to forget fear. I am embracing today. And, as a side benefit, I’ve had some side gigs as a hibachi chef, a pregnant woman, a soldier, a swimmer, a wrestler and a high school student dissecting a frog.

I can’t wait to see what he next sessions will bring and what other lessons are in store.


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