“Silicon Valley’s cure for awkward geeks? Improv”

For this week’s blog post I’m reviewing the article:

“Silicon Valley’s cure for awkward geeks? Improv” by Wendy Lee – @thewendylee

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:

Wendy’s great article covers how Silicon Valley is employing improv training as a way to help its massively tech oriented population connect, collaborate and become better able to think on their feet.

I feel the main takeaways from the article are:

  • Thinking On Your Feet
  • Listening Skills
  • People Skills
  • Participation
  • Playful Environment

Wendy starts out with the example of Jun Liu who started taking improv classes with the intention of the classes helping him to learn how to raise money more effectively. What Jun found out though was that improv helped him in another way:

“It teaches me how to anticipate unpredictable things,”

The article goes on to mention how listening skills and being able to add to other people’s ideas is difficult in Silicon Valley because people are really caught up in focusing more on the technology than maybe the people involved with it all.

Wendy also mentions that Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter once performed with The Annoyance Theater in Chicago and helped spur voluntary improv trainings at Twitter. As an aside, I’m very familiar with The Annoyance and their style of play. So I have no doubt that Dick has some fantastic skelet…errr stories, yes yes I meant stories, from his time at The Annoyance. Dick if you’d like to share any of those with Jim or myself I promise to only tell them to the internet. Scout’s honor…back to the review.

The article also mentions how Stanford’s business school and other entrepreneurs and companies are seeing rewards from having their employees either go take improv classes on their own or having trainers come in and run improv workshops with their employees (we do that! <cough> <cough>). The employees are learning how to collaborate more, communicate with customers in a more conversational tone (as well as listening to and understanding their problems better) and use humor to help build teams and connections more quickly.

The article mentions the following survey done by Accountemps in 2012:

“Humor can make or break careers. Seventy-nine percent of chief financial officers surveyed said humor was important for employees to fit into a company’s culture”

Having humor helps with creating a more playful and participatory environment. Employees feel better about contributing and also about supporting other people’s ideas and thoughts.


How it relates to Improv:

I think the “people skills” carry over from improv more into the real world as opposed to directly in Improv on stage and by that I mean during an actual scene on a stage. Those skills certainly carry over into how the group functions off stage at rehearsals or just hanging out with each other. There you’re interacting with…surprise, other people. Having your ensemble be able to get along and work together is important just like working together at your job with your co-workers is important.

Improv requires a lot of listening and responding in the moment (thinking on your feet). This can give a lot of beginning improvisers problems, most likely because

  • They’re more focused on what they want to say rather than listening to what their scene partner is saying


  • They’re scared to death of responding with something “instantly” because they don’t think it will be funny, entertaining, interesting, creative or cool.

Ironically, the more you think about responding with something funny, entertaining, interesting or cool the longer you will sit there saying nothing and end up saying something that is decidedly NOT one of those things. Improv has a lot of exercises to help with listening, “yes, and” which I’ve mentioned before is one but for thinking on your feet there are others like word at a time story or community monologue.

Community monologue is a fun exercise where a single character is created and the entire group tells a monologue all as that character. One improviser will step out and start a monologue based on a suggestion. They create the initial character and the rest of the improvisers must continue using that character when they step out to continue the monologue.

For example if the character has an accent the next improviser must continue the accent. That next improviser can also add their own quirks to the character. At the same time, in addition to maintaining the character, the following improvisers continue the monologue adding to what was previously said and creating more and adding to it. The exercise is a great way to train improvisers to immediately process information and then add new information to it.

For participation and people skills improv is also great because EVERYONE gets to particpate in class and no matter how you feel you know that everyone there is going to be up in front at some point and that everyone there is going to support you no matter what. I can’t tell you enough how important and awesome that feeling is.

So I’ll say it again…everyone there is going to be up in front at some point and that everyone there is going to support you no matter what. Burn that into your brains please as it is, as the French say “le merde”.

Improv also strives to make the atmosphere playful because when you’re playing you have more fun and then fear takes a back seat and you’re more likely to take risks, try new things and try out other ideas you normally wouldn’t.

A great game for warming a group up as well as being really playful is “Hey Fred Schneider”. The premise of the game is simple:

The game starts out by having the players stand around in a circle and asking, to a rhythm,

“Hey Fred Schneider, what are you doing?”

Then a person in the circle can sing a non-sequitur line in the voice of Fred Schneider, the lead singer of the B-52’s. After a person answers the question, they pose the question to the entire group again. But don’t just take our word for it, Thomas Middleditch from Silicon Valley uses it too:



How it relates to UX:

So how do the takeaways of:

  • Thinking On Your Feet
  • Listening Skills
  • People Skills
  • Participation
  • Playful Environment

…relate to UX? I think the connections are readily apparent. An initial connection is to the User Researchers. They need to interview and listen to the users during the discovery phase. Even though the researcher may have a list of questions prepared they need to be able to think on their feet and in light of an answer that offers some new, interesting or unexpected information, the researcher may need to ask a new or previously unthought of question to further delve into what the user is telling them. This of course also falls under people skills.

The participation and playful environment aspects affect how the over all UX team operates between themselves but also with people outside the team like stakeholders, subject matter experts etc. If an atmosphere that allows everyone to participate exists there will be a great chance of discovering a new and interesting way to solve a user’s problem.

If the atmosphere is playful more people will participate because it’s just plain fun. It’s not going to feel like work to solve the problem and a lot of that will have to do with everyone supporting each other EVEN WHEN THERE’S FAILURE! Which is important because people need to know they can fail without it having negative consequences. People are going to be more willing to risk bigger and more creative ideas if they know they’re not going to get killed for them if they don’t end up working out. And as always when we’re talking about the offering up of and generation of ideas we know not every idea will be used or is the answer to a problem but being able to offer an idea and have it accepted and explored IS important.

That’s all for this week!


Yes and,

Mike and Jim


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