The CEO of Dollar Shave Club spent eight years studying improv at UCB in New York. The communication skills he learned there later allowed him to create a brand that prides itself on listening and responding to customers on an individual level.
Take a moment and ask yourself: What was the best meeting you've attended this week? Who was there, what did you do and why was it so good?
With so much of our time at work spent in conference rooms, it's important to think clearly and creatively about the way we spend our time together at work. Below i've put together eight simple ways you can use basic improv techniques to be more productive, engaged and entertained in your next meeting.
1. While everyone arrives, use a warm-up activity to set a collaborative tone
Meetings almost never start exactly on time, so instead of silently checking your email, why not use those first five minutes productively? In groups of 3-4, challenge teams to come up with as many ideas as possible for this year’s company holiday party. For the first two minutes, every sentence during the brainstorm must start with “yes, but”. For the next round, all sentences must start with “yes, and”. After both rounds are done, discuss as a group how changing “but” to “yes” altered the way you worked together.
2. During the meeting, assign points of view
If your meeting involves brainstorming or providing feedback on ideas, try assigning “roles” to participants. Normal titles like “CFO”, “President”, “Finance Director” or more creative roles like “Elon Musk”, “The Queen of England”, or “An Excitable Eight-Year-Old” allow people to step outside their own experiences to think about how other people might perceive an idea. This technique encourages outside perspectives and new ideas that may not otherwise make it into the conversation.
3. Turn your challenge into a story
In eight sentences, you can tell the beginning/middle/end of any business objective by filling in the following blanks: “Once upon a time...Every day...But, one day...Because of that...Because of that...Because of that... Until, finally...And, ever since then…”. Try writing a few different versions out loud as a group and see if you can spark a new line of thinking on your KPIs and goals.
4. Take turns asking “dumb” questions
We often say “there are no dumb questions” but still find that nobody asks any questions for fear of, well, looking dumb. Take a moment the next time someone explains a new or complex topic and propose that everyone in the room ask at least one “dumb” question. This helps mask any embarrassment and may provide important answers people might otherwise never receive.
5. Acknowledge that body language is part of a meeting’s dialogue.
If someone is learning back in their chair, staring off into space, or checking their phone, these are clear indicators that they are not engaged. When this happens, pause and check in with disengaged attendees and ask what they’re trying to say with their body language. “I noticed that a few of us are not engaged in the discussion, is this topic valuable for you?” is a way to address this kind of issue. Conversely, if people are making eye contact, leaning in towards the speaker and nodding their heads, acknowledge these behaviors and confirm that what you’re seeing is in line with what you’re hearing. Connecting the dots between what people are saying with their bodies and with their words helps to ensure that all meeting participants understand and agree to the decisions made in the room.
6. Help virtual participants feel included by describing the room
It’s very easy to lose track or forget about the people on the phone. Remember to regularly verbalize what’s going on in the room to make sure that remote participants are aware of the current mood and energy. Quick comments like “Everyone seems to be nodding”, “I see a lot of smiles around the table” or “Omar just brought in a delicious looking burrito and now we’re all jealously watching him eat it” help remote participants contribute to the conversation in more precise and productive ways.
7. Brainstorm “bad” ideas
The next time you and your team are stuck on a tough problem, try a “reverse brainstorm”. As a group, write down ten terrible ideas that would only make the problem worse. Often these terrible ideas are just a tweak or two away from a creative idea that would actually solve the problem.
8. Create an agenda and send it out ahead of time
I know this isn’t improv, but it seriously works! Every meeting needs an agenda, and if you’re struggling to come up with one, you probably don’t need to meet. Often the most productive meetings are the ones that never occur.
The SF Chronicle examines how bay area tech companies are well served by San Francisco improv instructors. In classes specifically designed for technology employees, trained instructors work on skills like listening, collaborating and generating creative ideas to problems.
In his new book, "Ditch the Pitch", Steve Yarrow argues that replacing tired, scripted sales pitches with improv-fueled "persuasive conversation" increases customer engagement. This strategy helps to drive better, more nuanced discussions about customer needs, reducing wasted time and increasing conversion.
Read the full article here.
The Cleveland Clinic is incorporating improv training into doctor/patient communication training workshops. Their aim is to help doctors develop skills to make interactions with patients more collaborative, empathetic and ultimately improve patient outcomes.
The class paired up for one exercise, in which one person was of present times and the other played the role of a Rip Van Winkle character who was waking up after being asleep for 200 years.
“So we had to put ourselves in that position of someone who had no comprehension of cell phones, for example, or televisions...The analogy then would be trying to put yourself in the position of a person with no medical experience and trying to explain a complex procedure or a complex diagnosis.”
Read the full article from Crain's business here.
In the last five years, Improv training has expanded into the mainstream. More people, both performers and non-performers alike, are reaping the benefits of regular improv training in their daily lives:
"I think improv helps people become better humans. It makes people listen better. Improv rules are life rules. And so, if a lot more people are taking improv, a lot more people are being thoughtful in their daily life about how they interact with each other."
- Julie Brister, Upright Citizens Brigade
Read the full article from the Atlantic
Dr. Paul Ekman, best known for furthering our understanding of nonverbal behavior, trains others on the inter-workings "micro expressions" and the emotions that lie just beyond each raised eyebrow or pursed lip.
Mid career professionals have a wealth of experiences from which to draw from. Many executive MBA programs are now leveraging improv training to help teach how discomfort and the experience of failure can be used as a training tool.