Improvisational theatre, or improv, is great entertainment, but does it really have a place in the world of work? We think it does—and that it can help you to develop your storytelling ‘muscle’.

For a moment, let’s set aside all prejudices and scars from previous experience of ‘role play’. Improv is not about pretending to interview someone, or practising a management technique on a training course. It is much sillier, much more fun—and also more creative. 

The idea behind improv is that two or three people are given a few pieces of information, and then have to improvise a conversation based on that information. The interesting bit is that they sometimes don’t have the same information—but have to respond to each other’s cues and let the conversation develop. 

Listening and reading the room

Improv Encyclopedia, an online resource for all things improv, suggests some basic rules for successful improv in a business setting. These also have parallels in business. The first is not to deny anything. In other words, respond positively to what the others in your scenario are saying, even if it doesn’t fit exactly with the information you were given. This highlights the importance of listening carefully to those around you. 

You can see the use of this in business. When a customer says something unexpected, you listen and respond. You let them lead the conversation. You certainly don’t shut it down by refusing to discuss their point—even if it’s not what you thought you would be discussing.

Other sources suggest that improv can also help to develop skills in reading body language as well as listening. Those who have used improv suggest that you can see when others are uncomfortable with your proposed line—both in a skit and in a business meeting. In other words, you are more likely to recognise when you have misunderstood something, or brought the wrong information, if you have some experience of improv.

Creating a partnership

The second rule is to avoid open-ended questions, such as ‘What do you want?’. At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive in business or improv. Surely it’s the fastest way to gain information? However, it also forces the other person to do a lot of the work, and they may resent that. Improv, like business conversations, is a collaboration.

The third rule is not to try to be funny. Many people think of improv as comedy—but it’s really about telling a story. It might be funny, or it might not. The same applies in business. Your idea of funny may be very different from other people’s, and you might easily offend if you get the tone wrong. Avoid trying to be funny both in writing and in person—but if your sense of humour chimes with someone else’s, you can be sure that you will find out.

The fourth rule is that you look good when your partner looks good. As we said before, improv and business are collaborations, not competitions. You are seeking a win–win outcome. One way to approach this is to adopt a ‘yes, and…’ approach. In other words, take what your partner or customer offers, and build on it. 

Building storytelling skills

There are plenty of people who will tell you that improv hones creativity, innovation and ability to think on your feet. Business schools use it as a way to build adaptability. All these are essential in business, and particularly in responding rapidly to changing client needs. 

We argue that all these are important. However, storytelling is perhaps one of the most important skills that can be honed through improv. Improv Encyclopedia’s final rule is to focus on the story you want to tell. The site argues that improv is best when the participants focus on telling a coherent story. We know that the same goes for blogs, videos and many other forms of communication in business. You need to be clear upfront about the story you are trying to tell, and the point you want to get across. Stories are also inherently memorable, which means that they help people to remember your ideas.

Improv will not appeal to everyone, and especially not introverts. However, it is important to focus on getting past the ‘performance barrier’. Instead, engage in the process of building a conversation and collaboration with another person, and on telling a story. That will give you the true magic of improv—and the building blocks for better storytelling muscle.