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From the Stage to the Boardroom: 3 Lessons from Improv

Kristy Esparza

It’s not often that a session at a conference ends with a battle royale of rock, paper, scissors.

Yet, here we are.

Welcome to “From the Stage to the Boardroom: Lessons from Improv, one of the most surprising and highest-rated sessions from Relativity Fest 2019–and for good reason. In just 60 minutes, Relativity Trainer Taylor Overstreet and Event Specialist Blair Heidenreich had attendees on stage performing real-live (and truly funny) improv, all while teaching us important lessons about communication.

If you missed the session in person, I’m going to be real with you: This recap isn’t going to do it justice.

But read on anyway for the three powerful–and totally practical–takeaways that you can use to boost your communication skills.

But first, the basics: What is improv (and why should you care)?

Improv is a form of live theater in which the plot, characters, and dialogue of a game, scene, or story are made up in the moment. If you’ve seen Whose Line Is It Anyway, you’ve seen improv. If you’re a human being living on Planet Earth, you’ve done improv.

“Improvisation is an example of heightened communications,” says Blair. “You have all improvised before–in meetings, on dates, at Target, at awkward family dinners, playing with kids. Improv is our daily life.”

More and more companies and organizations are turning to improv to help their teams communicate better, take risks, and even recover from failure. In fact, business schools at major universities, including Notre Dame, Duke, MIT, and UCLA, have started incorporating improv into their class curriculum, helping students enter the “real world” more prepared and ready to think on their feet.

Lesson 1: Trust yourself and your colleagues.

Trust is the foundation of every relationship, both personal and professional, and it’s crucial to the success of your team–whether that “team” is your work crew, your family, or your scene partner on stage.

Unfortunately, developing trust–especially with people you barely know–doesn’t come naturally to most of us. But Blair and Taylor shared two words that can help: positive intent.

Positive intent means trusting that the people you’re working with have your back and are approaching the situation with the best motivations. Taylor advises that–with permission–you can even literally have someone’s back.

“Pat each other on the back and say it, ‘I’ve got your back,’” she advises. “Physically making contact, if they’re comfortable, can go a long way.”

And positive intent isn’t just about what the other person is thinking–it goes both ways. You, too, need to believe that your intentions will be well-received and that the person you’re working with will respond well to you.

In short, as Taylor, put it: “Put yourself out there, and take good care of each other.”

Lesson 2: When in doubt, say “Yes, and”

“Yes, and” is perhaps the most common rule of improv. In Blair and Taylor’s words, it’s the “magic sauce” behind any good scene.

Saying “yes” encourages listening, reduces judgement, and opens the door for expansion. Pile on the “and,” and you can go anywhere. It’s a chance to build upon your team’s ideas and encourage collaboration and innovation.

Unlike on stage, you can’t truly say “yes, and” in every interaction. (The correct answer to “Can I clip my toenails at the table?” is “No, thank you.”)

But, choosing to say “yes, and” whenever possible–especially in brainstorming meetings, for example–can help encourage the free sharing of ideas, make people feel more comfortable and empowered, and open all realms of possibility for you and your team. Take it from Blair, who played the role of Young Andrew in the Fest 2018 welcome video.

“I was on the roof, in a bald cap, in the middle of summer. And I would never have gotten there if I didn’t say ‘yes.’”

Lesson 3: Listen with your entire body.

Effective listening isn’t just about paying attention to what people are saying to you in a given moment. It’s what Blair and Taylor call a “full-body activity.”

“Listen to what people are saying and how they’re saying it. Pay attention to their facial expression, tone, body language, the actual words coming out of their mouths,” says Taylor.

Just as important, she explains, is listening to yourself–your facial expression, tone, body language, and the words coming out of your mouth–as well as your energy level, your physical comfort, and other cues that can help you assess the situation as a whole.

Together, taking in your colleagues’ body language and tone while also staying in tune with your own cues can help inform your experience and, ultimately, make you a better communicator.

Another tip that harkens back to lesson #1 on trust: Listen and then react. 

“So often we find ourselves listening to get a leg up in an argument or have ammo ready,” explains Blair. “Process what someone is saying before you react to it. Don’t listen and think of an argument–it just shows you don’t trust that person.”

Encore: Enjoy yourself.

The one ringing takeaway from Blair and Taylor’s session? Have fun. They demonstrated that throughout the 60 minutes, somehow getting a roomful of strangers to come together and put on a real live comedy show.

If a few fun improv tips can do that, imagine what you can do at your office.

“There’s nothing better in a day of e-discovery than going on stage and being a chicken,” says Taylor. “Things are going to get weird, but you’re going to have fun.”

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Kristy Esparza is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, specializing in content creation and copywriting.

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