We have previously said that improv could have a place in business, and particularly to help you develop and improve your listening ability. Fuelled by hideous memories of role-play exercises on corporate training courses, you may well be wondering just how this could be the case. We turned to improv pro Alison Lester for guidance.
The answer is that improv is not role-play. Instead, it is about listening to another person, thinking on your feet, and reacting to the information they provide. It is, therefore, very good training for discussions with customers. In meetings, you are unlikely to have all the information about your customer’s situation. You could be faced with unexpected and quite possibly unwelcome information at any time—and you will need to be able to react sensibly and coherently, based on what you have heard.
You need to be able to turn your immediate reaction from ‘Oh no!’ to ‘Yes, and…’, and using improv exercises can help you to do this. All you need is a willing partner or small group of friends or colleagues who also want to learn, and you can get started… Here are three improv exercises to try
What to do. In a small group, or even just a pair of people, the first person must start a story with a simple sentence such as ‘Yesterday I went to the park’. The next person then has to take the story forward with a new sentence—but there’s a catch. The sentence has to begin with ‘Yes, and…’. For example, you might respond ‘Yes, and I was in the park too, with my dog’ or ‘Yes, and I saw you there, enjoying the sunshine’.
What you’ll learn. This exercise helps you to accept and support what has been said before. It is the polar opposite of ‘Yes, but…’, which we all know really means ‘No’. It’s a good idea to try different approaches to this one. What happens, for example, if you keep offering new information? And what about if you just try to find out more about the original scenario?
What to do. This exercise is similar, but instead of building the story a sentence at a time, you can only add a word. Try to keep the story going long enough to establish a problem, and then resolve it.
What you’ll learn. Again, the purpose of this exercise is to keep you focused on what other people are saying, so that you can build on their contributions. It is a good idea to try not to be too quirky. Don’t introduce too many new ideas, and try to stick as close as possible to the early ideas that emerge. This helps you to focus on your customers, and what they want, without imposing your own ideas too much.
What to do. In pairs, one person is designated as the storyteller, and the other the controller. Agree on a title to your story, and then the storyteller starts to tell their story. After a few sentences, the controller chooses one word that the storyteller has used, and says, ‘Expand [word]’. The storyteller then has to break off from their story, and talk factually about the chosen word, and all its relevant associations. Their partner can stop this process at any time by saying ‘Advance’. The storyteller must then go back to their story, and pick it up where they left off, until they are asked to expand on another word. Do four or five expansions, and then the storyteller needs to bring their story to a close.
What you’ll learn. This is a very good way to practise moving between the two sides of your brain, creative and fact/logic-based. It helps you pick up your creative thread quickly after delving deep into facts and figures. This is likely to be useful, for example, if you have been talking about a product, and have then been asked to think creatively about a solution to a client problem, then go back to the product again. The exercise links together memory, association and creativity, and helps you to jump between the three.
These exercises develop two main skills. First, they make you focus harder on your partner or group, and what they are saying. You have to listen hard to pick out the main threads, and build effectively. Second, they help to make your thinking process more flexible and therefore effective. We suggest you try them.