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Improving leadership through improv (from an improver’s perspective)
My name is Maddie Shears, and I am the
podcast producer for Westgate’s Get Hired Up!
I’m delighted to share my experience with improv and its benefits from both a professional and personal lens. I want to give you some insight into how it expands beyond comedy and the performing arts as a tool and will in fact even further amplify your ability to lead teams, support your networking endeavors, and strengthen your overall communication.
What is improv?
Traditionally speaking, improv is a theatrical technique in which the performer is delivering a scene that is entirely unscripted. Typically, the improver will be given a suggestion from an audience that helps give the initial direction of where the scene will go.
The idea that they have no script and
they will be thinking spontaneously of where the scene will go, is a major part of the humor behind improv. It also tends to add an element of realism or authenticity because the performer, without any real direction, is delivering the performance through their own style, brand, and lived experiences.
To help further illustrate the world of improv, let me draw your attention to a famous TV show from the 80’s/90’s. The ever-popular Seinfeld involves much improv. Certainly, some of the lines are scripted in advance, and there is a structure to each episode, but a lot of their performance is improvised.
One of the most reputable institutions for improv is Second City (where I am currently a student), and some of the alumni include Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Tina Fey, John Candy, Bill Murray, and many others.
A question I often receive when people learn I do improv is whether or not I want to go into acting. The beautiful thing about improv is that it isn’t just for the world of performing arts. It’s a tool for your toolkit in navigating the world around us. It has many applications and purposes. Some of the immediate benefits include the following:
- Heightened social skills, including overcoming social anxiety.
- The ability to get out of your head and think more proactively.
- Innovative thinking and strategizing.
- Team building.
- Trust enhancing.
- Encouraging deep focus and concentration.
It is obvious how improv is useful in performing arts. I would like to focus on how it can be life-changing in our professional lives.
Heighten your social skills
Not everyone has those natural social skills you see in extroverted, enthusiastic individuals. After the pandemic, even those who consider themselves quite social found comfort in seclusion.
I’ll admit, I’m quite extroverted and the thought of learning improv in a group of strangers didn’t really scare me—I was mostly excited and maybe a little nervous (but the good kind). That said, many of my fellow improvers are not like that by nature. But when I tell you the difference in their spirit and the way they communicated between the first day and the last day, it was astonishing.
I like to think of improv as a safe space to be a little bit silly, putting your hand up every time versus only when asked to, and allowing yourself to feel freedom in expression. The more you are able to practice this, the more it circulates throughout your life, in all social spaces.
Getting out of your head and thinking more proactively
I would like to draw upon a specific story to help illustrate this particular benefit of improv. In level two, one of my teammates—we will call him Sebastian, was very new to the world of improv. His company paid for him to take the class to help him expand his communication style.
Challenge & Solution
As a lawyer, Sebastian often analyzed context and data in his mind before speaking any words into existence. For his colleagues and peers, this would often come across as quiet, uncomfortable, and uninterested. However, Sebastian was none of those things and throughout our course, it became very clear that he was full of life, very curious, and absolutely hilarious.
At first, he would take quite a while to say the first thing that came to mind (this is an exercise in many improv games) and our teacher would often encourage him to just “let go” and push past the hesitation. Week after week he became more comfortable saying exactly what was on his mind.
Innovative thinking and strategizing
As they say, the best things happen outside of your comfort zone. For many of my fellow improv classmates, this journey began with a leap of faith. I won’t sugar-coat it—it’s not the most comfortable experience at first. It does take pushing past some fear and that fear has been ingrained in us from a young age. One of our teachers explained it in a way that I will never forget:
In Western society, we grow up with constant sets of rules, guidelines, and limitations. When we are little, we are taught what is polite, what isn’t polite, the most appropriate ways to act, etc. In grade school, it’s a similar, but different set of rules. You can only speak when you raise your hand, you have to follow a protocol for going to the washroom, so and so forth. In university, once again, there are similar but different sets of socially acceptable processes that someone somewhere deemed the best way to conduct yourself.
There is only one rule in improv, and it’s depicted with two words: “Yes, and…”
This simple concept will inevitably go on to encourage the most inclusive, free-thinking, free-speaking, and unrestrictive experience we have all been brainwashed to think is inappropriate, obnoxious, and immature. I would have to say my favorite component of improv is its ability to teach us and encourage us to think outside of the box, push the limits and tap into true innovation.
To put it simply, if I am practicing the art of improv, pushing past fear, and thinking outside of the box, then I will start to do so in the way I strategize new ideas for my work, how I communicate with my team, and the offers I make in contributing to an organization.
Team building & trust enhancer
My improv troop knows me like no one else (apart from maybe my partner—who is also an improver). Plain and simple, you must trust your teammates. This is the ABCs of improv, and you learn it early on.
The whole idea behind “Yes, and…” is that you never reject an offer. If one of my teammates contributes an outlandish idea that I might not have been expecting, I do not reject it by taking their suggestion in a different direction or saying no. I’m their teammate and they trust me to make sure we don’t both fall flat.
Let’s take a step further; If I’m on stage and my scene is spiraling downwards (it happens, but you also learn to go with the flow and not criticize yourself—yet another benefit), one of my teammates will jump in and join.
We either succeed together or we fail together.
How is that for a company morale punchline?
The point is improv is very useful in learning how to build solid, trustworthy relationships. Trust is one of Westgate’s foundational values and it is so because all successful ventures and partnerships are founded on trust. Trust helps to move the needle quicker on objectives, stress levels are reduced, and the combination of the two generally leads to a bountiful ROI.
Encouraging deep focus and concentration
Let me explain a very popular improv warm-up: The clap-focus. Essentially, we are all in a circle, and you have to look the person in the eye that you want to send the clap over to. They receive it and they have to send it to whoever they want in the circle. Eventually, other elements get thrown into the process and there will be as many as 6 “things” being communicated to each other, all at once, very fast. It requires eye contact, focus, and…you guessed it…trust.
While improv encourages spontaneity and impulsive moments, you learn to have a deep focus on what is happening around you so that your spontaneity still qualifies as rational. There still needs to be a flow and you find that with your team through focus and concentration. The two generate a deep sense of confidence and that is the moment when you truly recognize the power of improv.
Improv isn’t just for the performing arts. In fact, its application is limitless. Before I found improv, I craved a sense of community that encouraged not just thinking outside of the box but physically and psychologically experiencing what that can mean.
In my professional life, I have spoken up in more conversations with ideas, despite how unconventional they may seem. I’ve learned to interact and adapt in varying social settings, allowing me to meet so many different people. I have learned what it truly means to “not sweat the small stuff”, and have found a new level of confidence that helps me push the boundaries in a productive way.
So yes, it is fun, funny, and performative. But on a deeper level, it changed who I am for the better and I will always advocate for this craft because I know what it can do for individuals, communities and corporations. It is a major part of my personal brand.
If you are interested in learning more or would like to ask me any questions regarding improv, I invite you to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will “Yes and…” promptly!