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I Love Improv and So Should You

By: Maria Meschi | Aug 2, 2019

I am an improviser. Professionally, I mean - people buy tickets to watch me and my friends make up funny scenes at CSz Indianapolis - Home of ComedySportz. What we do is short-form improv - think “Whose Line is it Anyway?” - we get one or a few suggestions from the audience and create hilarious 3-5 minute scenes or sketches.

You are an improviser.  Professionally. Maybe not on stage with people buying tickets, but as a meeting professional you are expected to respond to changing conditions just as deftly as I am during a performance. Fifteen people who didn’t register just showed up to your sold out conference? You need to collaborate with your team to find a solution - quickly, and often without letting anyone see you sweat. The contract is almost signed and suddenly your planner is asking for new concessions? Time to protect not only your business, but your relationship.

While many people think of improvisation as strictly entertainment, there are many lessons that you can learn by intentionally cultivating your improv skills. When improv is taken off the stage in order to teach people interpersonal and communication skills, we call it “applied improvisation.” Those scenes at CSz don’t happen because we’re inherently funny people, they’re the result of many hours of practice. Improvisers are some of the best communicators I’ve ever worked with, and it’s because our success, on stage and off, depends on it.

Now, I’m an applied improvisation enthusiast; I even spent an entire year writing my thesis on it. I love it because I’ve seen and felt it work.  It works because applied improv practice takes place in a “brave” space—which is similar to a “safe” space in that participants are safe from judgement. However, in a brave space participants not only refrain from judgement, but also actively support each other. Participants accept and celebrate the actions of others, even “mistakes” or “failures”.

It is this support that’s key to developing new responses to uncertainty.  For example, think about an emotional experience… like when an irate attendee corners you to complain. It’s a natural response to panic and shut down or escalate: fight or flight. However, when an emotional experience happens in an explicitly supportive environment, like an applied improv session, the brain can develop alternate responses based on the experience of working through uncertainty with the guarantee that it will be supported, no matter what. Your brain can redirect its response to something more positive and productive.

An applied improv session generally consists of a series of activities, though we like to call them games. These games are designed to create low stakes scenarios where participants can practice responding to emotional experiences. Following each game or series of games, participants reflect on how the principles of the game might apply to their life, work, and relationships. I’ll give you an example:

Boo/Yay: Participants stand in a circle. One person states a “Boo” - a bummer about their day or week (e.g. “Traffic made my commute 30 minutes longer this morning”). Everyone jeers, “BOO!” The next person turns that into a “Yay” by looking on the bright side (e.g. “But you probably got to enjoy more of your audiobook in the car”). Everyone cheers, “YAY!” The next person states a new “Boo,” and the cycle continues around the circle.

Boo/Yay is one of my favorite games to practice reframing negative situations into positive ones. How might this principle work for you? Sure you can’t necessarily immediately turn an attendee’s Boo into a Yay, but you can reframe your internal response to the situation. How much more relaxed might you be if you take a moment to remind yourself that this attendee complaining about a cold room simply wants to engage with your event and is asking for your help to remove that barrier? 

Are you sold? Want to give it a try? Let me know - I can recommend some great classes and facilitators who can help you, your team, or your attendees improve your lives through applied improvisation.

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