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Improv for Business Professionals

Take a class in improvisation if you want to improve your management and communications skills.

Yes, Virginia, there IS a place in the business world for improvisation. Not just the "think quick on your feet" glib type of speech used by slick Willies in sales, but real improv. The kind that professional actors perform on stage that often generates lots of laughs. Second City. The Groundlings. THAT kind of improv.

I see that you're already shrinking back from the idea, thinking "I'm not a comedian" or "I'm not getting up on any stage!" or "I can't come up with a snappy response just like that!" Don't worry. I'm not talking about improv for entertainment purposes, but to broaden the skills you'll need in everyday business. Skills like leadership, management, and interpersonal communications. Activities that inspire creativity and contribute to building a strong work team based on trust and active listening.

What's the basis of great communications? Listening.
Improv teaches us to truly listen: to live in the moment and respond
with an open heart to the other person in the conversation.

A young woman intently listens to another young woman explain her position.
Listening skills are #1

How does improv help in a business environment?

Improv trains your staff to value everyone's contribution, whether or not it solves a particular problem, and frees up even the most reticent and shy to participate without fear of judgment.

The basis of improvisation is being in the moment, truly listening to the person in front of you, taking in what they have to say, and building upon their perspective.

You may have heard of the basic "yes, and..." game, in which you listen to what the other person is saying, accept it as truth, and then add on to their story with your own insight or observation. It doesn't have to be funny. Just sincere.

For example, person A would say:

"Revenue for this quarter is taking a nose-dive because of that recent acquisition."

Person B may respond with:

"Yes, the company took quite a risk, but I think that by the end of the year we'll see an entirely new market opened up to us as a result."

Person A can continue the conversation with:

"Good, I hope so! Please get back to me with your projected sales revenues for Q4."

In a light-hearted improv session, the conversation may instead go like this, with person A declaring:

"Aha! I knew it! You're the infamous cookie thief!"

Person B goes with the flow:

"You caught me red-handed, Detective Know-It-All. But hey, nobody can have just one."

Person A runs with the idea that person B is a human Cookie Monster:

"And that's your downfall. I suppose I'll be bringing you in on milk-swiping charges, too."

and so forth. I think you get the idea. It furthers the conversation and doesn't shut anyone down.

A long line of young boys pull on their end of a rope in a vigorous game of "tug of war."
Improv teaches your team to pull together

Advantage: Improv creates emotional bonds within work teams

Improv games are often high energy. One of my favorites is a warm-up exercise to get everyone warmed up and attentive. It's called "zip-zap-zop."

Your team stands in a circle. One member looks into another person's eyes, extends his arm like he's throwing an energy bolt at her, and says "zip!" The recipient immediately chooses a different individual to look at, extends her arm towards him and says "zap!" This third person chooses someone and repeats the same action calling out "zop!"

The game continues in a rotation of zip-zap-zop, in which anyone can direct the energy to anyone else until the leader feels that everyone is engaged and energized. There's usually a lot of laughter that goes along with this game, too, and the sense of fun builds a positive emotional bond within the team.

When people are enjoying themselves, they're building a sense of community and friendship. They also can see a side of their co-workers that may not often show itself in the workplace, like a mischievous sense of humor or a talent for wordplay.

There are games that require collaboration between two people, like the alphabet game, in which a conversation take place between them. The first person starts a sentence with the letter A. The second person replies beginning with the letter B. They continue alternating, continuing through the alphabet until they end up at Z. Yes, some letters (like Q) can be more challenging than others, and the conversation may take a weird turn, but it's fun. And the participants (and onlookers) will have a good laugh or two.

Improv trains your people to expect the unexpected and to take it all in stride. Actually, a very good life lesson for anyone!

A young man with a cocked crossbow takes careful aim at the paper target in front of him.
Take careful aim ... but adjust, if necessary

Advantage: Improv trains sales and customer service teams to pivot

Improv is particularly helpful for sales and customer service teams, especially if they're looking for new and better ways to connect with their leads and clients.

Difficult clients? Improv can help your team discover new ways to connect with these folks, listen and learn what's most important to them, and ask insightful questions based on what the clients tell them. It's all about listening and moving the conversation forward.

I know - I used to be in high tech sales, where I was often calling on introverts who preferred coding to conversation. It wasn't always easy to draw them out, so I learned to speak their language and truly listen to the problems they were trying to solve.

I also called on top executives, who'd dole out five minutes (at most) on their calendars, in which I had to listen to their top concerns, make a compelling case for them to work with my company, and come away with a mandate that would move us that much closer to a sale.

In both scenarios, my staff and I would often have to pivot to understand new concerns, respond to changes in direction, and bring in specialists to resolve unexpected issues. Improv trains your people to expect the unexpected and to take it all in stride. Actually, a very good life lesson for anyone!

Laura's Quick Tips

  1. Most people just want to be heard and their opinions respected. That's what improv teaches.

  2. A good crisis can bind people together in a hurry. Improv can do the same without any of the trauma.

  3. An open-minded, flexible attitude builds strong relationships with clients. Improv training helps your staff pivot when new information or obstacles are presented.

Interested in learning more about improv? I'm happy to talk with you more one-on-one about it and how it can help your organization. I'm currently performing in an improv company. Read more about it here >

Could your sales team use some help presenting to your prospects or customers, either via online Zoom calls or in person? As a former sales rep turned actress, I know how to bring the entertainment factor into even the most dry content. I can work one-on-one or with a group. Check out some of my top tips with this free downloadable PDF:

Want help developing your on-camera confidence?

Laura Doman smiling

I'm Laura Doman, a former tech industry sales executive, hands-on mom, voice & TV/film actress, and improv performer. I create memorable characters that tell my client's stories, from the friendly CEO touting new upgrades to your sassy best gal pal dispensing some necessary, real-world advice...Let's Talk!


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