“Develop improv comedy skills to succeed in business”

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Article review! Article review! In this week’s blog post I’m going to review the article:

“Develop improv comedy skills to succeed in business”

by Bill Connolly – @billconnolly

As always the articles we review may or may not directly talk about User Experience and that’s OK. What Jim and I will do with our article reviews is pull out the main improvisational themes being talked about. Then we’ll give our perspective/take on those themes and how they relate to and support User Experience.


Article Summary

Bill’s article touches on the soft skills used by comedians/improvisers and how they are important to people working in the business world

A few of the soft skills Bill mentions are:

  • Creativity
  • Teamwork
  • Agreement (yes and)
  • Listening
  • Failing to succeed

According to the article a Career Builder survey showed that 77% of employers believe that soft skills are as equally as important as hard skills. Bill’s article also mentions that the business schools at Duke, UCLA, Stanford and MIT are starting to use improvisation to help grow their student’s soft skills before they’re release into the business wild. If those schools are starting to recognize the value of improvisation and what it teaches by jumping onboard the improv train then why don’t you jump onboard with us? There’s plenty of room.

Bill talks about the many times in business that we tend to hear “no” a lot more often than “yes”. The reasons he mentions for hearing “no” are because people spend more time trying to get their own ideas chosen, or because they think the other ideas will be to hard to do, or maybe they just like being negative and feel good about trashing other people’s ideas.

Some business examples for me on this are brainstorming or going through ideation exercises. The whole point of those exercises is to generate new and different ideas. Making sure everyone participating is open to all ideas is required in order for it to be a success. One person shutting people down will limit exploration and cause people to participate less. Why would they participate when they know Jerky McJerkface and his attitude are just gonna crap on them and their idea because his ideas are CLEARLY much more important than their ideas.

Listening is also mentioned and how more often than not, people are listening to respond rather than taking the time to actually hear what the other person is saying. We can all fall into this trap unfortunately and it really takes a conscious effort to focus, listen and stop you from interrupting the person speaking.

The final idea Bill mentions is “Failing to succeed”. Many times in business people afraid to fail because they fear punishment i.e. “you’re fired!” If the office environment is one that punishes every single failure then the people working there are going to do everything they can to not fail and stay out of trouble. That makes it really easy to take the path of least resistance in order to make sure something gets done. However that my not be the best solution and it’s more than likely not going to be new and interesting.


How it relates to Improv

So to relate those soft skills to improv really isn’t really too difficult. Those skills are taught at the very beginning of the training schools whether that’s Second City, iO (formerly improvOlympic) or The Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Listening, agreement, teamwork, creativity, risk taking and failure are all part of what makes up learning how to improvise.

For listening and agreement the first exercise I always use with improv students is the classic, “yes and”, in the context of 3 line scenes. Here’s how the exercise works. Two improvisers take the stage and one of the improvisers gives an opening line. The 2nd improviser says “yes” and repeats the 1st improviser’s line as accurately as possible. Then that improviser says “and” and adds a new piece of information that builds on the 1st line. Finally, the 1st improviser does the same thing with the 2nd improviser’s line of dialogue (end of exercise).

Now a scene on stage would never go like the exercise but the point of the exercise isn’t to do a scene. The point is to really force the improvisers to slow down and listen and agree to what is being offered. We know the improvisers are listening because they repeat the line said to them. We know they’re agreeing because the new information being added supports the previous lines. The other skill being tied in here is teamwork because the 2 improvisers are working as a team to build the start of a scene.

“Yes and” example

I1: “I was really hoping to get down to the drivers license office today.”

I2: “YES, you are really hoping to get down to the drivers license office today. AND if you don’t you won’t get your license renewed.”

I1: “YES, I won’t get my license renewed. AND without a license I won’t be able to drive us down to the beach this Saturday.”


Now a way to get the improvisers thinking more creatively while doing “yes and” is to tell them to use not the 1st, not the 2nd, but the 3rd idea they think of for their lines. Usually the first thing you think of is the knee jerk, expected response, the 2nd thing moves away from that but still may not be surprising or original but the 3rd idea, many times, is something unexpected. Why? My take is that you’re giving your brain a chance to connect what was said to other ideas that are lurking in your subconscious. You give your mind an extra second or two to explore and create.

In improv failure happens a lot, and I mean a lot at the beginning. But by constantly practicing and failing you eventually get better (I swear). I wouldn’t say that improv helps you overcome failure/fear. In my experience it helps you become more comfortable with failure and fear. If an improv show bombs, it’s not the end of the world (although immediately after a show it doesn’t feel that way). But you get over it, move on, work on the skills you need to at your next rehearsal and do the next show. You learn to acknowledge that fear is there but you don’t let it paralyze you. You can’t let it paralyze you because you have the rest of your group depending on you to support them (and they’re ready and willing to support you).

Many times though, when you’re out there on stage improvising and having fun you don’t even have time to remember that you’re afraid. You’re engaged with your scene partner supporting them and creating a new and exciting world. An improviser friend of mine, Greg Tavares, has a TedX talk titled “Fun Kills Fear” that addresses this. Check it out when you have some time.


How it relates to UX

The constant failure of improv lends itself well to the LeanUX model where constant iteration and testing are paramount. But the nice thing about the testing and iteration is that there really is no failure. You and the team are just learning what works and what doesn’t work for the users. LeanUX mentions, if I remember correctly, a story about a pottery class where one half of the class had their grade based on only 4 or 5 pieces and the other half was graded on the number of pieces they made. The half of the class that went for volume saw a clear improvement in their work over the course of time because it didn’t matter if they failed or not they just had to keep creating and trying different things.

Through all that repetition and failure the students learned what worked and didn’t work and they were able to try new things without the fear that if it wasn’t perfect they would be punished with a bad grade. The other half of the group didn’t produce nearly as interesting pieces because they were limited in the number of pieces they could be make and they had to be “perfect”. So those students were less willing to take risks and created more “safe” work.

For the UX team listening and acceptance help the team to start working together collaboratively. Jim and I feel that starts with empathy (buzz word alert!) because you can’t really start to form a relationship with someone unless you can empathize with them. Usually the UX team has many varied positions and if you have a specific person in each role you could have the following: user researcher, content strategist, visual designer, information architect, interaction designer, user interface developer and a project manager. And that’s just the UX team because on the other side of that you have the stakeholder(s), subject matter expert(s), marketing etc. All those people are trying to work together to create something new and awesome. Oh yeah, you also have the most important variable in the equation…the users.

So the importance of those soft skills really shows up when you have all these potential moving parts. One person not listening, another person pushing only their ideas. Another person being negative because they don’t like the project. Improvisation trains people to BE empathizers, listeners, collaborators, creators. I think improvisation does such a good job of this because you’re really experiencing these soft skills first hand, in the heat of the moment along with the amazing results you get when you are actually using them.


Yes and,


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