How Following the Rules of Improv Can Change Your Business

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When you hear the word “Improv,” what comes to mind? Maybe you think of a comedy club you’ve been to or you think of the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Most of us realize that Improv – which is short for improvisation — can be fun to watch and challenging to perform. What we don’t know until we give it a try is how much we can learn about ourselves and about business by learning how to improvise.

How Following the Rules of Improv Can Change Your Business

What is improv?

By definition, improvisation is the act of inventing, composing, or performing with little or no preparation. In theater, it means not using a script, inventing a scene from an audience suggestion or some other prompt. Sounds like Improv involves no rules, right? Wrong.

The best improvisers follow three basic rules: say yes, be spontaneous and make your partner look good.  Following those rules of Improv can open up doors to you in your business and change the way you look at life. Let’s look at how:

First rule of improv

Say Yes:  The first rule of Improv is to accept what your scene partner offers you. It sounds easy, but we have a surprisingly strong instinct to shut each other down, to top each other, both onstage and off. If your partner starts a scene with the improvised line “It’s too bad that it’s so hot out today,” and you reply, “It doesn’t feel hot to me,” you have effectively shut down that scene. Your partner has to readjust wherever he or she was going in the scene, which can take precious and unnecessary time to fix

What happens if you instead say yes to your scene partner? Or even better, yes and…? Here’s an example: “Yes, it’s got to be about 100 degrees today, and I’m thinking of shaving my head to cool off.” Now, you have accepted what your partner has said and taken the scene in an interesting direction. Now the scene has somewhere to go.

How does this relate to business? Anyone who has seen the 2008 Jim Carrey film Yes Man knows that saying yes to everything can have both benefits and drawbacks. In the film, Carrey’s character has to say yes to everyone, and therefore at one point in the film, he has to give up first his wallet and then his car to a thief. However, he finds that by saying yes to a series of opportunities he might have otherwise said no to, he opens himself up to a new and far richer life.

Saying yes can start this process in your business. You’ll be surprised how strange it feels at first to agree with whatever a customer or client says. What if you know he is wrong? What if you say yes anyway?

Marshall Field, who started Marshall Field & Company (Marshall Field’s) department store, coined the phrase, “Give the lady what she wants.” It’s a great version of the Say, Yes rule, and Field used it to build one of the most successful department store chains in the country. At a time when customers were used to thinking more of the “let the buyer beware” motto, Field trained his customers to expect the best in service and customer satisfaction. It worked.

How can saying yes work in your business? Try saying yes to that returned inventory. Chances are the customer will remember and return the favor. Say yes to an extra sick day for that employee who is going through a rough time. Maybe he’ll work that much harder the next day to make up for it. Say yes to that new marketing plan that is so edgy and different it just might work.

Second rule of improv

Be spontaneous: The second rule of Improv is to be spontaneous. We tend to overthink our responses, searching our brains for the cleverest comeback or the best reaction in a scene. The problem with that is that the best Improv is fast-paced, and the window of opportunity is short. While you pause for that “great moment,” the moment can be lost forever. Experienced improvisers go with their first response.  It’s usually the best one anyway.

Spontaneity can work wonders in your business life as well. How many times have you wished you’d said something to that valued employee when you had the chance? Maybe that person did not know she was valued and took another job offer. Do you sometimes fail to jump on a business opportunity because you don’t trust our own instincts? Today’s fast-based business world doesn’t offer us much time to deliberate. One hesitation and the chance to make a decision can be gone.

Now, there are times when planning and organization really matter. The important thing is not to be so rigid that you ignore your instincts and put off a decision that can and should be made today for best results. Trust yourself. Be spontaneous!

Third rule of improv

Make your partner look good: The third rule of Improv is to make your partner look good in the scene. Now, if you think this means that you need to let your partner upstage you or take complete control of the scene, never fear.

Making your partner look good comes out of sharing the scene. If you incorporate the first two rules of Improv, in fact, you are well on your way to achieving the third rule.

At its best, Improv seems effortless. At its worst, it is a painful struggle. The difference between the two scenarios is teamwork. When two people share a scene without attempting to hog the limelight – or all the laughs – the scene works.  The best Improv is always about the relationship between the actors, not about just you.

Once again, Improv relates to life – and the business world – with this rule. When we listen more than we talk in our relationships, we are “making our partner look good.” When we don’t make everything all about us, we have stronger personal relationships both in our work places and in our homes. When we compliment our co-workers or staff on a job well done, we are making them look good.

Thinking about others and putting them first is what this rule is really all about. It’s so easy in this competitive, cut-throat business world, to think, “me first.” You may have to rethink some of your standard approaches to business decision-making. But the results are worth it.

When you take the three basic rules of Improv forward into all areas of your life, there will be no stopping you.  There’s a line that Danny Wallace, the Jim Carrey character in Yes Man, says that sums it up. “Probably some of the best things that have ever happened to you in life happened because you said yes to something. Otherwise things just sort of stay the same.”


By Tricia Drevets

Tricia Drevets is a freelance writer for a variety of print and online publications. She specializes in education and communication topics.  [email protected]

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