May 03, 2010

Business Improv

For the last six months I have been taking improvisation classes at Chicago’s Second City Theatre.  When I signed up, my objective for taking these classes was to improve my public speaking, presentation, and off-the-cuff speaking skills and to gain comfort in settings when I am “on the spot”.  I felt that by choosing to embark on this at Second City would not only provide me with that opportunity, but would provide me a little fun along the way!

Looking back at the last six months, it has been a lot of fun. I can also tell, as others have attested, that I have improved my public speaking, presentation, and communication skills. I feel better prepared and comfortable handling situations when I used to feel surprised or caught off guard. I’ve had the chance to test that out several times during recent meetings and presentations, with increasingly more positive results.  Just this past week, the pressure was on me again as my friends and family watched my improv class take the stage at Second City for a short performance.

The most interesting thing for me was that I came to realize that the same skills which make one a successful improviser, are really many of the same skills which make one successful in the office.  Possessing these skills alone does not allow one to be successful at managing large enterprise initiatives.  Rather, they are tools in the toolkit of a successful manager and communicator.

So without further ado, here is my top ten list of improv guidelines that can be easily carried over from the theatre to the office:

  1. The “right” message can be lost in the wrong emotional delivery.It can also be lost with the wrong non-verbal response before you even begin speaking.
  2. Supporting your ensemble is no different than supporting your team.  Step in when support is needed; don’t steal the spotlight; listen to your team.
  3. Being quick on your feet is not an instinct.  It’s a combination of preparation, knowledge, and practice.
  4. The audience in a meeting room needs the same information to understand and appreciate a discussion as an audience in a theatre needs to enjoy a show. Scene, characters, and situation must be clearly presented.
  5. Over-thinking can kill the message. Sometimes the best messages are delivered off-the-cuff.
  6. An audience wants to see conflict within a scene addressed.  Your project team will appreciate the same approach.  No one enjoys lingering conflict that is not addressed.
  7. Responding with, “Yes, and…” will take you a lot further than “No, but…”
  8. The audience appreciates when you stick to your character.  So do your colleagues.  It’s difficult to support someone who is unpredictable or borders on irrational.
  9. Capturing the audience’s attention is not just about dominating the conversation and speaking loud or frequently.  In fact, that is a turn off.  Short and sweet statements of fact which enable conversation are best received.
  10. When it becomes apparent to the audience that the scene is toast, it’s too late to recover.  Same goes for most projects.  The time to act is when things are good, to keep it that way.
When most people think of improv, they think of some of the legends – John Candy, Harold Ramis, Chris Farley, George Wendt, Bill Murray.  But, you don’t have to be an improv legend to be successful.  Rather, possess the skills that made them successful and you can be a legend in the office.

How Can We Help?