What Improv Comedy Taught Me About Leadership

“What in the heck did I just get myself into?” That’s what I kept asking myself a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t shake the feeling I had made a huge mistake. I was standing in a small room about the size of my old college dorm room, staring at 16 complete strangers as they explained what had brought them to the same room I was in. Everyone was extremely nice, but it didn’t help fill up the pit in my stomach, which was starting to grow even larger. Have you ever had the feeling you’re in way over your head and you have nobody to blame but yourself?

Well, that was me. Truth was I was going to get a lot more comfortable with these people because we had all signed up for the same Intro to Improv class and soon we’d be taking the stage instead of sitting in the audience like the “normal” people.

My path to this room started because a few months back I was in Iowa speaking at a conference, and I had the chance to catch my first-ever improv comedy show with the group who hired me. It was a ton of fun and I actually learned a lot in the process. You can read a little more about it here. Fast forward a few months later, and I’m at the Dallas Comedy House ready to begin a 7-week improv course complete with a live show as our graduation ceremony.

Now don’t hold your breath. I’m not here to announce the release of my Netflix improv special titled “Peanut Butter Rolex.” And while we’re at it, don’t hold your breath in general. There’s no good reason for that and you could pass out if you hold it too long. But as I mentioned in the previous article, I’ve found you can learn a lot from improv. Previously I’ve only been an observer, but it’s easy to see how certain improv strategies might be helpful in a variety of ways – including business.

How? Well, here are a few takeaways straight from the Dallas Comedy House.

Relationships matter.

In improv, one of the first things you need to do in a scene is establish a relationship between characters. The audience must know who the actors are and why they’re together – and every time we failed to establish those relationships quickly or convincingly enough, our instructors would harp on it. “What’s the relationship? Who are you to each other?” they kept saying, because without a relationship or connection, the scene isn’t going anywhere. And the same can be said for relationships in business. You’re not going anywhere if you don’t spend time on the relationships with your coworkers, your mentors, your clients, or your superiors. Focus on the relationship first and the rest will start to work its way out.

Yes, And…

One of the more famous improv strategies is the “Yes, and…” approach. For example, we performed a two-person exercise where one person had to make a statement about what kind of party they wanted to throw. “I want to throw a Mardi Gras Party.” The next person would then have to say “No, but…” and finish with their own statement: “No, but maybe we could go to Vegas instead.”   Back and forth you go with “No, but…” statements. It was hard! It felt like you were always disagreeing with your partner, and the conversation was inevitably awkward. Next up we tried “No, and…” statements. A little easier, but still difficult. Then we moved to the “Yes, and…” statements. After all the disagreements beforehand, “Yes, and…” statements felt like a gift. Storylines started flowing effortlessly. The entire class got animated with hand gestures and facial expressions. It was like we had unlocked Pandora’s box.

In business, supporting the people around you with “Yes, and…” statements can not only go a long way towards building relationships (see earlier point above), but you might also help flesh out some new ideas for your team instead of immediately jumping to the potential risks (“No, but…”). Of course, you won’t always be able to say “Yes, and…” but you could easily try putting it into your vocabulary more often than you do today.

Be the expert.

If all else fails, be the expert. In improv, audience members throw out random topics and you have to make a scene out of it. For example, one we recently had was belt loops. Yes, belt loops. It’s hard to figure out where to go with that topic, but with improv, you have to make a choice to be the expert. Which means you’ll need to form an opinion on the correct and optimal number of belt loops a given pair of pants should have. (It’s 7 if you’re wondering.)

I share this example because it turns out there isn’t much keeping us from being an expert in our jobs. The biggest hurdle we often have to overcome is feeling confident enough to speak up, share our opinions, and believe that they’re worth listening to. If you ever feel you’re struggling in those areas personally or professionally, just remind yourself that you’re the expert, and it might be enough to overcome any of those lingering fears.

Hope you enjoyed reading and talk with you again soon!

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