Improv comedy might be the key that unlocks your potential. That’s a bold statement but I truly believe it because there are so many skills you learn with improv that translate into every area of life.
This idea was reinforce when I meet Kelly Leonard at the Chief Learning Officer Symposium in the spring. Kelly has been with Second City improvisational comedy group in Chicago for more than 25 years. We had an interesting conversation because, in addition to loving improv, he’s fascinated by behavioral economics, social psychology and neuroscience. Having done improv comedy with my wife Jane many times over the last four years I was extremely interested to hear Kelly speak as well as read his book Yes, And. I highly encourage you to pick up a copy.
I also encourage you to consider taking improv lessons. In addition to learning a great skill you’ll meet interesting people and laugh a lot. I wrote a post about my improv experience more than three years ago and want to reiterate some points so you’ll consider doing some improv to unlock your potential.
I can’t imagine reading a few books on improv or following an improv blog for a brief period of time then trying to perform in front of a live audience. That would be like trying to learn how to ride a bike from a book. It just won’t work. Practicing improv in a safe space with a good teacher was a huge confidence builder for everyone in the classes we took. Not only did we learn from our teacher, we learned quite a bit from one another as we observed each other on stage.
Businesspeople traditionally hate anything that smells of role-play. Too many think reading about sales, leadership or coaching is enough. More motivated people might attend a seminar but none of these approaches will give you what you need to succeed. The more you role-play the more likely you are to be ready for the real-world situations you’ll eventually face. Just as is the case with improv, in a good workshop businesspeople learn as much, if not more, from each other during their time together.
Improv is short for improvisational comedy, which is unscripted. When you improvise you’re creating in the moment. It’s all about taking what’s given to you then creating a funny reality. Quite often audience members shout out people, places and things then leave it to those on stage to use their imagination to construct the scene.
You don’t know what will be thrown at you when you’re onstage and it’s the same when it comes to life. You never know exactly what might come up before, during or after a business meeting. If you’re a salesperson you don’t know what objections you might be hit with during a sales call so you need to be comfortable responding in the moment. The longer you’re in a profession the more situations you’ll face and the more comfortable you’ll become dealing with whatever comes your way. Just as more practice and performances help comedians, so it is with people in business.
Great comedians don’t just wing it even though they might improvise. Through study and observation, they learn what makes something funny and why some jokes fall flat. They draw from the world around them so the audience can relate and understand their jokes.
By the same token, good leaders understand their people and their needs so they can speak to both. Good leaders study their craft and learn how to speak persuasively so the team “gets it” just like the audience gets a joke.
Timing is crucial in comedy. Two comedians can tell the same joke but how they set it up, how they deliver the punch line and exactly when they deliver the punch line can make all the difference between laughter and silence.
Selling is very similar. Two salespeople can say essentially the same thing and for one person it comes across in a natural, conversational way but for another it feels like a pushy salesman. Timing is also very important when it comes to closing a sale. When to close can vary based on many things and there is some “art” as to what you need do to close the deal. Do it too early and prospective customers recoil because they feel like they’re being sold. Go for the close too late and you may have missed your opportunity to make the sale.
When people hear improv comedy one of the first things that comes to mind is, “Yes, and…” Improv is much more than this little phrase but it’s one of the first concepts you’re taught. In order to make a scene work you’re told to take whatever is given to you and build on it. Nothing kills a scene quicker than rejecting what someone has said or done.
In business, be it leadership, coaching or sales, shutting someone down, rejecting what they say, insisting you’re right and they’re wrong, is a sure way to alienate people. “Yes, I understand why you feel that way and…” then transition into something to hopefully get the other person to start seeing things differently is a very effective way to communicate.
Improv is a team sport and works best when you make those around you look good. Rarely does improv work when someone tries to go it alone trying to be funny. Scenes work best when those on stage know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Playing someone’s strengths and steering clear of their weakness helps them and the team create a great scene.
Like improv, business is also a team sport. The more leaders know their team the better they can play to each person’s strengths. This brings to mind the former Chief Sales Officer at State Auto Insurance, Clyde Fitch. We left a meeting one day and I thanked him for giving me the space to do what I thought was right. He said, “I might be the best player on the team but I can’t play all nine positions.” That’s a team approach.
Have I persuaded you that apart from just being fun improv can help you come closer to your potential? If you live in the Columbus metro area I encourage you to reach out to Jeff Gage because he was an awesome teacher. It was apparent he loves what he does because, despite having done improv for decades, he laughed as much as anyone during our workshops and shows. Reach out to Jeff to find out when his next classes will be held at the Funny Bone at Easton. I guarantee you’ll have fun, meet interesting people, laugh a lot AND learn a great skill.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC and Learning Director for State Auto Insurance. His Lynda.com course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed 140,000 times! Watch it and you’ll learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.