How to Use Storytelling to Increase Learning

By: Kat Koppett and Matthew S. Richter

Overview

This chapter will discuss the value of using storytelling in training and provide practical applications, exercises, and techniques to harness our innate ability to tell and receive information through story.

Introduction

Stories are all around us and they are evident in all of the obvious places: TV, movies, books, etc. They are also present in the way we interact with each other. Think about the various encounters we have throughout a typical day. We meet with our boss and give her a project update. We chat with our colleagues about our children. We tell our spouse about our day. All those reports include vivid characters, evocative settings, and, often, story twists that are stranger than fiction. Stories are the foundation for how we communicate. They enable us to make a personal connection to content on a deeper and richer level, more than a mere list of facts can. And how we narrate and read facts determines how we will remember and integrate them. That’s what learning is. When we approach “learning” in a more traditionally structured way, it can be a struggle for people. But stories enable us to learn without feeling like we are learning, without straining to get it right. Here’s a true story that one of our clients told us about using stories. We have written it using a story structure that we will discuss later.

Once upon a time there was a trainer named Sam, who was charged with delivering the New Hire Orientation program at a Fortune 500 company. Everyday, she would run her two-day program and impart critical information to any new employees using all of her most creative and enjoyable training activities. But one day, Sam was informed that the session had been cut down to only four hours. Because there was so much less time, the instructional designers had developed a lecture format for her to follow to guarantee that she could cover all the material. Because of that, Sam knew that she wasn’t going to be able to ensure learner retention. How could her training participants be expected to understand, relate, and most importantly, internalize the information in a practical way? Because of that, Sam went to several textbooks she had about training delivery to find some ideas. Whenever Sam picked up one of these textbooks, she found herself going right to the case studies that illuminated the important key points. Because of that, Sam was able to relate the events in the case study to her own current challenge and previous successes. Because of that, she realized the power of the story. Stories are about making meaning and determining what sense can be made out of what we learn. And because of that, Sam knew she had the answer. She would use storytelling as her delivery method. She would tell stories around the content and get the participants to tell stories in review. She would use different story structures to frame the material, but at all times maintain a focus on drawing connections. Sam knew that if people could relate the material of a program to their own lives, they would be able to derive meaning from the session, and thus, make sense of it. So, because of that, Sam redeveloped her tactical approach to the program. Until finally, the big day arrived. She told stories, the participants told stories, and everyday afterward, her students remembered the material and had the tools to succeed in their new company.

Sound good? We thought so, too. Here are some applications and exercises.

Applications of Story in Training

There are a myriad of specific ways stories can be used in training sessions:

At the beginning of a session.

A story placed here can:

  • Break the ice and allow the participants to get settled.
  • Establish credibility and empathy.
  • Frame the intention of the workshop in a robust and emotionally rich way.

As a method of participant introductions.

This method allows for individual expression and will be more memorable than a list of stats (birthday, favorite color, and favorite food). Here are some ideas for introductory stories that participants can share with each other.

Have them:

  • Tell the story of their names – participants relate how they got their name or nickname.
  • Share a war story – participants describe a pivotal story from their work life.
  • Recount the story of how they got here today (starting from whenever they choose – this morning, birth etc.).

As a needs assessment.

This provides you with information about your participants and their expectations, previous knowledge, and applicable skills.

  • Have participants tell the story of “what I got out of the workshop” at the very beginning, as if the workshop were over. This can be used as a way of gathering learner expectations.
  • Have participants tell a true story of a great success in order to gather best practices and tips to share.
  • Have participants relate a story of frustration or disappointment as a way of determining objectives and challenges to address in the workshop.

As a visioning and strategic planning tool.

  • Individually or in groups, have the participants write the story of the ideal future state, with as many sensory details as possible.
  • Identify a current state and a desired state and have participants create the story of how they moved from one to the other.

As a method for enhancing learner retention and content review.

  • Individually or in groups, have the participants create a story that illustrates a learning point.
  • Provide a story that illustrates a process or incorporates data as a mnemonic device.
  • Have participants write “the story of the workshop” as a way of assessing retention and evaluating the experience.

As a team-building activity.

  • Have groups create stories collaboratively, without worrying about content, as a way of exploring shared control, accepting each other’s ideas, and listening.
  • Have groups create the story of their ideal team (see visioning above).

As a way to increase creativity and provide a safe environment for idea generation.

Use storytelling exercises individually and in groups to exercise the participants’ creativity muscles.

Instant storytelling allows participants to practice the following skills:

        • being spontaneous
        • listening to others
        • accepting and building on ideas
        • using observation as inspiration

In addition, sometimes people need to be reminded that they are creative. Storytelling is a fail-safe way to prove to them that they are.

Use stories as a way of generating ideas. By fictionalizing a situation, participants may feel safer thinking “outside the box” or voicing “silly” ideas. For example, have them tell the story of how things would be if a famous person were in charge of a project. (e.g. how would our meetings look if they were run by Mother Theresa? Arnold Schwarzenegger?) Use the story format to generate ideas that can be modified and used in their own worlds.

For fun!

A wise person once said, (ok, it was us) “Fun is going to enhance interest, or intrinsic motivation, because people don’t feel incompetent (a key demotivator) when they are having fun.” Throwing a story into a discussion anytime, anywhere can change the energy and provide entertainment, which is valuable in and of itself.

Storytelling Tools and Exercises

As we have said, all of us are natural storytellers. Some of us, though, may feel frightened at the idea of having to actively create a story. Or we may feel that our stories do not highlight the point we are trying to make, thus failing to create the intended impact. Or, when we are narrating a story collaboratively, we may get lost in a forest of conflicting ideas. Below, we have included two exercises to guide individuals and groups through a conscious process of story creation.

The Story Spine

The Story Spine is a template originally created by Kenn Adams, a playwright and improvisational actor, to aid improvisers and writers in creating “well-made” stories. The flow or structure of a story is very important. Whether it is organic or cultural, most of us have a strong visceral sense of what makes a story satisfying. This template can help us create well-built narratives. In addition, it provides participant storytellers with a structured freedom for developing their tales, thus enabling them to build on the content and not get bogged down by the process.

Begin each sentence or part of the story with the following:

“Once upon a time…”

This is the introduction to the setting and characters in the story. The platform. The exposition. It gives listeners the context and sets the stage.

Example:

“Once upon a time in the same city, there were two prominent families who despised each other.

“Everyday…”

The platform continues and develops.

Example:

“Everyday the families feuded, fought and killed each other’s members.”

“But one day…”

This is the catalyst. The reason that the story is being told. Why today is different.

Example:

“But one day, the son of one of the families crashed the birthday party of the other’s daughter.”

“Because of that…” (repeat at will)

This is the heart of the story. The consequences that ensue from the catalyst. Each event leads to another event building suspense and tension.

Examples:

  • “Because of that, the son and daughter fell in love.”
  • “Because of that, they secretly married.”
  • “Because of that, the son wanted the killing to stop.”
  • “Because of that he stepped into the middle of a fight and inadvertently caused the death of his best friend.”
  • “Because of that, in agony and rage, he killed the killer, his wife’s cousin.”
  • “Because of that, he was banished.”
  • “Because of that the lovers needed to employ a complicated plan to be reunited.”
  • “Because the plan was complicated, and depended on other people, communication broke down.” (Does this sound like work?)
  • “Because the message didn’t get to him, the son didn’t realize his wife was only faking her death, and he thought she was really dead when he found her in the family tomb.”
  • “Because of that, he killed himself.”

“Until finally…”

Here is the climax. The clincher. The moment for which we all wait!

Example:

“Until finally, the daughter awoke to find her husband dead beside her, and she plunged his knife into her body, just as the members of both families entered the tomb to find their beloved children dead.”

“And ever since then…”

The resolution. The conclusion.

Example:

“And ever since then, both families have stopped the nonsensical war between them and have learned to cooperate and live happily together.”

Uses of the Story Spine

  1. Use this template with any of the story-creation activities listed above.
  2. Use the template as a guide when creating and editing stories for presentations or training courses.
  3. Use the template as a way of exploring creativity within structures or boundaries. Even with such a specific structure there are an infinite number of stories that can be told. (This is especially pertinent to those trying to think creatively in a corporate setting.)

In your training, consider the template to be a dynamic and fluid structure, allowing participants to pick and choose what works best for them. Some learners will enjoy working within a structure more than others will. We suggest that you provide an environment that supports choice.

Color/Advance

So, the example story above was pretty good, eh? But it wasn’t Shakespeare. Why not? Why do we revere his version of Romeo and Juliet, even though the story has been told a million times before and since? It’s all in the details. His structure is strong. His “because of that’s” flow from one to the other, building in intensity beautifully. But mostly, it is the language Shakespeare uses, the descriptions he employs, the way he develops his characters that makes his work a masterpiece. What makes a story compelling is not just what happens, but how it is related, the specific moments, the images and sensory impressions that are created.

Here is an exercise for adding meat to the bones of the story spine.

  • Have each person create a story using the story spine.
  • In pairs, have participants share their stories.
  • Choose one person in each pair to be the “storyteller” and the other to be the “guide”.
  • The storyteller begins to tell the story again. Whenever the guide hears something that he wants to know more of he says, “Color the (blank)”.
  • The storyteller then describes, in as much detail as possible, that element of the story.
    For example:
  • Storyteller: “because of that they fell in love…”
  • Guide: “Color ‘falling in love’.”
  • Storyteller: “Romeo risked his life to see her. He looked up and saw her on the balcony. He told her that she was so beautiful that the moon must envy her. He climbed up to her and kissed her and when the dawn came they swore their eternal love and spoke of the “sweet sorrow” of parting.

OR:

  • Storyteller: “Once upon a time there was a sales manager named Max.”
  • Guide: “Color ‘Max’.”
  • Storyteller: “Max had been in his position for 26 years and he was tired. He weighed 347 pounds, ate 2 double cheeseburgers everyday for lunch, and wore a flea-bitten toupee.”
  • When the guide is satisfied, he says, “advance” and the storyteller continues on with the next part of the story spine.
  • At the end of the story, the partners switch roles.

Variations:

  • Do this exercise alone, using a timer to switch from coloring to advancing.
  • Have participants form groups of three. Use two guides, one in charge of calling for “color”, the other in charge of “advancing”.
  • Begin from scratch with no story spine previously created, enabling the story to evolve and grow spontaneously.

Uses of Color/Advance

  • Use this exercise to develop and flesh out stories.
  • Use it to exercise creativity muscles, practicing spontaneity and building on others’ thoughts and ideas.
  • Use it to work on teamwork and shared control.
  • Use the “color/advance” vocabulary in your training, allowing learners to “color” and “advance” your presentation, to get more clarity or to move the session along.

Additional Tips

Here are a few general tips for using story effectively in your training:

  • Create a safe environment. Although we love telling and hearing stories, presenting to a group or revealing ourselves can feel dangerous. Storytelling is easy, but if a participant does not feel safe, he may be inhibited and unwilling to be creative and expressive. Therefore, it is imperative that, as trainers, we focus on increasing participant comfort and decreasing the fear of appearing stupid or aberrant.
  • Provide opportunities for choice. Different folks, of course, have different learning styles, and will prefer creating and presenting their stories in different ways. In addition, just the act of giving the participants a sense of control through choice will allow them to feel safer and more motivated to participate.

Here are some alternatives you can offer:

  • Work alone or in groups
  • Act out or write and read your story
  • Use the Story Spine literally or as a general guide/inspiration

When running a story-creation exercise, limit the amount of time given to the participants. This does two things. First, it forces people to let go of their judging or censoring voice, because they do not have time to complete the task unless they commit to whatever comes to mind. Second, it provides participants with an excuse if they don’t like the end product. Excuses can be very valuable when you are asking people to take risks.

Summary

Our love for story is universal. And we use story all the time. Every time we understand a new set of data, learn a new skill, change an attitude, or share a part of ourselves with others, we do it through formulating some sort of a story. By using the storytelling process consciously through these exercises and applications, we can increase the effectiveness, robustness, and enjoyment of our training sessions. Stories are easy, fun, and useful. Enjoy!

Improv and the Art of Selling

by Kat Koppett

 

Improvisers create without a script or the chance to revise their performances. They work collaboratively to entertain diverse audiences by taking their suggestions and building stories, scenes, whole plays, on the spot. Sound scary? Increasingly, businesses are recognizing how similar their tasks are to those of the improviser. As the world moves faster and becomes more global, there is less time to plan and more need for collaboration. So business people are turning to improv for help. You see, in order for improvisers to succeed at their ridiculous endeavor, they live by certain principles. Principles that can be useful to anyone who must create, collaborate and build relationships with others.

These days, with more sophisticated customers and more complex products abounding, sales people, especially, can benefit from these techniques. Successful sales encounters are dependent on an ability to read customer personalities and needs, instill trust, and cultivate creative solutions. Let us take a closer look at some of the improv principles that can help sales people succeed.

Build Trust

The greater the risk, the greater the necessity for trust. Improvisers risk humiliation in front of hundreds of people each time they perform a show. Customers can have even more at stake. Imagine, the financial well-being of their organization may depend on the products they buy. Their jobs may hang in the balance. A sales person may be able to make a quick sale once by tricking a customer into buying something that does not meet his or her needs, but to have long-term success, he or she must be able to able to establish empathy and credibility. Here are some ways to do just that:

  • Get to know your customer – Intimacy breeds trust. Spend some time learning about the people you sell to. What do they do, like, think about, when they are not at work? Let them get to know you. We do not like to reveal ourselves to people who do not reciprocate.
  • Follow through – Real trust is not created until the rubber hits the road. If you want to sell to a customer a second time, make sure you deliver at least as much as you promised the first time. (More if possible.)
  • Create a safe environment – If you can lower the perception of risk, you will increase the willingness of others to engage. When you are asking people to take chances, they must feel safe. When possible, give customers a chance to test the waters.
  • Make your partner look good – It is only by focusing on your client’s needs that you can fulfill your own. How can you help them sell the idea to their superiors? How can you help promote their agendas? Think of your customer as your partner. When he gets what she wants, you get what you want.

Be Spontaneous

What many people label wit or cleverness in improvisation is simply a willingness to say whatever comes to mind. Spontaneity is the fuel of creativity. And creativity is at the heart of problem-solving. Problem-solving is, in turn, at the heart of a sales interaction. Craig Harrison, sales consultant and trainer in California says, “So often we are bound by rules and regulations, restrictions and proscriptions. Sometimes we’re so bogged down we can’t respond to the issue at hand.” The best salespeople pay attention, trust their instincts, and go with the flow. They solve personal and practical problems as they arise, rather than sticking to a prescribed method or structure. To increase your spontaneity:

  • Be silly. Creativity is, by definition, a departure from the status quo. You can always preface a suggestion with “I know this sounds crazy, but…” Try it before you reject it.
  • Be Obvious. Sometimes we reject ideas because we believe they are not creative enough. When you articulate the obvious, either you are voicing something that everyone is thinking, but no one else has the courage to say, or you are contributing something that seems very obvious to you, no one else has thought of. Both have value. In addition, by simply naming something you notice, you may uncover an important need or objection. Facial expressions and body posture tells us a lot. Trust your impulses when you think you see a clue.
  • Celebrate Failure. In order to create, we must take risks. In order to take risks, we must be willing to fail. Bad ideas may spur great ones. Generate ideas collaboratively with your customers, and give a prize for the worst one.

Say “Yes, And…”

Once we have taken the risk of offering up an idea, we must be willing to accept and build on it. Harrison says, “So often we are apt to respond to comments, suggestions and inquiries with some variation of “Yes, but…” The impact is immediate: whatever “offer” being advanced is now qualified, mitigated, diminished or otherwise muted.

Your customer’s world of possibilities has just been restricted. The idea in question, once ripe with potential, has now been shackled.”

An improviser who forgets everything else can still perform well, simply by following the “yes, and” rule. If spontaneity is the fuel of creativity, saying “yes, and…” is the engine. It turns impulse into workable solutions. And it builds connection and trust along the way.

To improve your “yes, and-ing” skills:

  • Remind yourself and your partners of the rules of brainstorming when generating ideas
    • Separate idea generation from idea evaluation
    • Quantity over quality
    • Record without discussion
    • Build on other’s ideas
  • Explore when and why you say “no” to ideas. Can you work through some of the blocks? Can you negotiate with your supervisors for more leeway? Who has the power to say “yes”? How can you encourage them to do so? Focus on underlying needs rather than specific solutions.
  • Pay attention in your non-business contexts. How often do you say “no” there? Why? Say “yes” sometimes, just to see what will happen

Storytelling

People love stories. That is why they read novels, watch television, go to the theatre, and gossip. The appetite for stories in humans is nearly insatiable. So, improvisers work hard to become good storytellers. Stories are more than just entertainment, however. Story is meaning. The way we make sense of the world is by linking little bits of data together into a connected whole. Stories deepen learning, enhance retention of information, and give us a context for all of our daily choices and activities.

Here are some ways to use stories effectively in sales:

  • Frame Value. Andrew Kimball, of QBInternational, says, “The only reason that anyone buys anything is because they perceive it as fulfilling a need. ‘Value’ equals needs fulfilled.” It is our job as sales people to link the features and benefits of our products to the needs of our customers. Story is an exceptionally good tool for framing value. When we are evaluating a new product, service or option, our tendency is to see how it fits into the overall narrative of our lives. Talented sales people weave beautiful stories for us, showing us just how their offerings will lead to happy endings.
  • Pique interest. No matter how brilliant your information is, if people are not engaged, they will not absorb it. Stories can be used to break the ice and establish credibility and empathy. They can add humor, suspense and drama. Look for opportunities to tell stories whenever you are presenting.
  • Gather information. Stories can provide information about expectations, assumptions, and values. Have your customers share stories about their current situations and concerns. Asking for examples and anecdotes will provide much richer information than simple statistics or bulleted objectives.

Selling is an art. Take these tools, then, from the art of improvisation and apply them to your work. Trust yourself, and others will trust you. Take risks and you may discover genius. Work with your clients to develop relationships, and you will expand your range of selling opportunities. And the most important lesson? Have fun along the way.

Improv and the Art of Training

By Kat Koppett

 

Written for inclusion in the “Trainers’ Guide to Experiential Learning”, edited by Mel Silberman

Turn on your television and you might just run into “Who’s Line is It, Anyway?” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or any number of other improvised programs. Whereas just a few years ago, television producers cringed at the idea of producing a show with no script, in which they had no fore-knowledge of what would happen, now improv is flourishing around the world. From Japan to Finland to the U.S., improv can be found not just on television, but in theatres in virtually every community. If you are familiar with their work, you know that improvisers make up scenes, songs, stories, sometimes entire plays with no rehearsal or pre-planning. It is a high-wire performance without a net. Entertaining, you might think, but what does that have to do with training?

A decade or so ago, as improvisational theater neared its tipping point, a few rogue trainers and business leaders thought they saw some applications of improv techniques to their world. They figured, “Hey, improvisers have to perform on-the-spot, collaboratively, under pressure, with immediate results. So do we. Perhaps there are some practices we can appropriate for our purposes.” Most people, of course, did not think like this. They thought, “Improv? Well, it may be ‘fun’, but this is the real world. Our work is serious and important. We would never waste our time and money on fluffy, touchy-feely drivel.” Improvisers wondered, too, even as they started developing workshops for corporations. Was there really value for organizations in practicing the skills of improv, or was teaching improv workshops to business professionals merely a momentary diversion for the participants, and a way for starving actors to pay the rent?

These days the landscape looks different on both sides. Improv has become a recognized and respected technique for enhancing creativity, communication and teamwork within many leading edge organizations. And a new breed of improv trainer has emerged: one trained in facilitation and instructional design; one savvy about the needs and culture of his business clients. Like many things that have gone from being wacky, out-of-the-box initiatives to being mainstream practices, the value of improv in training now seems straightforward and intuitively obvious to many.

As the world moves faster and becomes more global, there is less time to plan and more need for collaboration. So business people are turning to improv for help. Trainers, especially, are learning to tap into the improv world for process and content inspiration. Many of the current experiential kinds of training games have their origin in the world of improv. But improv has more to offer than just fun activities to break up the monotony of lectures. (Not that breaking up monotonous training is unimportant.) Improvisers have developed specific approaches and exercises to hone their creativity and collaboration “muscles”. These techniques help hone the skills of both trainers and their participants.

Trainers ARE performers. Sivasailam Thiagarajan (Thiagi), the great guru of training games, says that he believes there is no better preparation for becoming a trainer than acting. Trainers must have excellent presentation skills, as well as the flexibility to sense a group’s needs and respond in the moment. Improv can help trainers develop these skills. Next, as creativity and communication – teamwork, coaching, leadership, idea generation- skills continue to be increasingly in demand, trainers can tap the world of improv for content-related exercises. Improv exercises can be wonderful “jolts” – introducing individuals to new ways of thinking, as well as wonderful workout routines for exercising the muscles of creativity and teamwork. Finally, many improv techniques and games are “frame” games that can be used to enhance learning, regardless of the specific content. Improv activities have been used in training on topics as varied as product training, new-hire orientations, technical training and diversity workshops.

To summarize, improv can be used by trainers:

  • to develop the presentation, design and coaching skills of the trainer.
  • to enhance the creativity and communication skills of participants.
  • to increase the effective delivery of virtually any course content.

Let us take start by taking a closer look at some of the improv principles that can help trainers and the people they train. Then, we will explore some specific activities and their place in workplace training.

The Principles

Build Trust

The greater the risk, the greater the necessity for instilling trust. Improvisers risk humiliation in front of hundreds of people each time they perform a show. Business professionals may have even more at stake. Imagine, the financial well-being of their organization, the livelihood of their colleagues, their professional and personal success, sometimes even people’s lives depend on how they perform every day. Therefore, if organizations wish people to be innovative and collaborative, to take risks and try new things, they must be highly skilled at creating an environment that is supportive of that risk-taking. As trainers, we are, by definition, asking people to try something new, do things at which they are not already expert, so having a safe and encouraging environment becomes all the more important. Improvisers have developed ways to consciously build such a culture, and to build strong, trusting relationships.

First, improvisers simply value the process of getting to know their colleagues in a deep and relatively intimate way. This is not to say that it is necessary to share early childhood trauma, or one’s most embarrassing moments in order to strengthen teamwork. Surprisingly, innocuous information can be as useful as deep, dark secrets. It is the act of sharing, as well as the content, that builds the team. In business we tend to err on the side of separating our personal and professional lives. What improvisers, like all artists, know, however, is that there is no such thing as separating work and life. Even if we could compartmentalize ourselves completely, why would we want to? Improvisers know that it is their life experiences which inspire their professional creativity, enhance their awareness and understanding of others’ need, and are the underpinning of their ambitions and values. Improvisers use themselves fully. They have nothing else. Business professionals are recognizing the same imperative to “show up”.

In addition, getting to know each other is becoming an increasing difficult and important step at work (and in life.) It used to be that the “Golden Rule” – “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” – was good enough. Now, in our ever more diverse communities, we are realizing that we need to go further. Now the rule is “Do unto others as they would be done unto.” We can no longer assume that our preferences coincide with our neighbor’s. The more we reveal about ourselves, the more others can support us. The more we seek to understand about others the more we can assist them. And there may be good reasons to do so. But what improvisers realize, is that by really understanding their partners, they can offer help and inspiration, meeting needs that might otherwise have gone unmet.

The second trust-building rule of improv is “make your partner look good.” It is what we do with our shared knowledge of each other that makes the difference. “Make your partner look good” means concentrate on your partner rather than on yourself, and take responsibility for both of you. “If your partner drops the ball,” we say, “it is your responsibility, not his.” The concept of accountability gets bandied about these days. Ironically, the conversation often consists of admonitions directed at others, as in “YOU should be more accountable.” Thinking always of making your partner look good is a way to separate true accountability from thinly disguised blame.

Trainers can apply these rules in overt and subtle way from the moment they begin to design their sessions. They can learn to establish credibility and instill trust by both revealing parts of themselves, and soliciting information from their participants. By using trust-building activities (most trainers have some in their back pocket), as well as simply asking questions about participants’ individual experiences and objectives, trainers can both create an overall environment conducive to learning, and target the specific needs of individuals. Then, when participants do take the risk to try something new, or reveal a sensitive issue, trainers can work to “make them look good” by rewarding the risk itself, and building on the ideas offered. Which brings us to the next important improv concepts.

Be Spontaneous

From a very early age, most of us are taught to censor ourselves. Good thing, really. Without the ability to control our impulses, make judgments, and choose when and if to act, we would be crippled. We could not learn to read, eat with utensils, or shed our diapers. Civilization, itself, is a set of agreed upon limits we place on our uncensored actions. However, there is a price. We spend so much time exercising our judgment muscles that our creativity muscles can atrophy.

In improv, there is no time to evaluate. By definition, improvisation is creating in the moment, without the ability to revise. Improvisers practice getting out of their own way so that they can recognize and utilize their innovative ideas. What is especially interesting about unleashing one’s impulses is that it is often the ideas that seem the most dangerous or the most obvious – the ones that our rational mind would have us censor – that yield the greatest fruit. What many people label wit or cleverness in improvisation is simply a willingness to say whatever comes to mind. Spontaneity is the fuel of creativity. And creativity is at the heart of problem-solving and innovation. Craig Harrison, a sales consultant and trainer in California says, “So often we are bound by rules and regulations, restrictions and proscriptions. Sometimes we’re so bogged down we can’t respond to the issue at hand.” The best trainers pay attention, not to their prescribed agendas, but to what is happening in the room. They trust their instincts, and go with the flow. They solve personal and practical problems as they arise, rather than sticking to a predetermined method or structure. And they encourage their participants to do the same.

The improv exercise, “Soundball”, is a simple way of raising awareness about how much we censor, and working out our spontaneity muscle. In “Soundball”, the participants stand in a circle and throw an imaginary ball back and forth. Each time a participant tosses the ball, she makes a sound. Her partner, the person to whom she has thrown the ball, repeats the sound as he catches it. There are no rules about what kind of sound to make, no parameters around what sounds are acceptable or prohibited.

Anything goes.

Initially, learners can express discomfort playing “Soundball”. Now it is sort of silly to throw an imaginary ball around, and looking foolish rates as one of the top taboos in many business cultures. But there is more to their uneasiness. Regardless of the lack of skill required or of any rules of right and wrong, people find all sorts of ways to evaluate their input, and feel not only foolish, but incompetent. They worry that their sounds were wrong: “It was too soft.” “It had too many consonants.” “It was too similar to the sound I made the first time.” “It wasn’t interesting.” They admit to planning sounds ahead of time and trying to store them up. They share moments of panic when they could think of no sound at all.

“Soundball”is one activity that highlights the arbitrary nature of our judgments. Usually, when we evaluate a product or an idea, we feel we have substantial reasons for doing so. We would love to say, “yes” and follow our impulses, but they are wrong! The idea is just bad! Soundball illustrates how capricious our internal judge can be. At this point, most people know intellectually the value of brainstorming, generating a quantity of ideas without evaluation. But in practice, this kind of non-evaluative idea generation can be difficult to achieve.

To increase spontaneity, and support it in others, improvisers practice:

  • Being silly. Creativity is, by definition, a departure from the status quo. As a trainer, encourage participants to share whatever thoughts they have. Tell them they may preface a suggestion with “I know this sounds crazy, but…” if that makes them feel less responsible for it.
  • Being Obvious. Sometimes we reject ideas because we believe they are not creative enough. When you articulate the obvious, either you are voicing something that everyone is thinking, but no one else has the courage to say, or you are contributing something that seems very obvious to you, no one else has thought of. Both have value. In addition, by simply naming something you notice, you may uncover an important need or objection. Facial expressions and body posture tells us a lot. Follow your impulses when you think you see a clue. Support participants in a workshop to do the same.
  • Celebrating Failure. In order to create, we must take risks. In order to take risks, we must be willing to fail. Bad ideas may spur great ones. Have teams generate ideas collaboratively, and award a prize for the worst one. Improvisers talk about “mistakes as gifts”. One of the most famous examples of accepting a mistake as a gift is the invention of Post-it notes. If the chemist at 3M had said, “Huh, well this glue doesn’t stick very well. Better ditch that. And I’d better hide my failure to boot,” we would not have that beloved little tool that has become such a staple of our professional lives.

Accept and Amplify

When we practice being spontaneous, we learn to accept our own ideas. It is equally important to accept others’ ideas. The “yes, and…” rule is the foundational one in improv. We build trust by accepting others’ “offers”, and then, using our spontaneous responses, we build on those offers to create something. An offer is an improv term that refers to anything, ANYTHING that the other person says or does. It can be a word, a gesture, an attitude, a request. Anything. Our job as improvisers is to recognize the offers and use them.

Let’s look at the “yes” part: Organizations lose speed and opportunities, because ideas are rejected without really being explored. This happens for a variety of reasons. New ideas may mean more work; others might get more credit; the idea feels risky; someone thinks he has a “better” idea of his own. However, every time we say “no” to an idea instead of “yes”, an opportunity is lost. That does not mean, of course, that evaluation is not useful. Or that we should commit to every idea. When we depend on our judgment muscles exclusively, though, we throw the baby out with the bathwater, the electricity out with the light bulb.

Keith Johnstone, an improv guru and the author of “Impro” says, “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.” Often it may be that simple. Saying ‘no’ feels safer. Less to do. Less to think about. Less to risk. But when organizations begin to recognize the price of saying “no”, perhaps the equation is not so neat.

The “and” part goes like this. Not only must I, the improviser, accept an offer, I must build on it. I must contribute. I must make an offer of my own in response to my partner’s. It is this process which harnesses the power of collaboration. Everyone offers and accepts. Each team member is responsible for both contributing to and supporting the group’s activity. Remember our “make your partner look good” rule? “Yes, and…” incorporates the two rules above – build trust and be spontaneous. It says whatever you offer, I will hear, accept and build with. What a powerful and unusual collaborative approach.

There is a simple exercise, that improv trainers use to illustrate the power of saying “yes, and.” “But vs. And” is played in two rounds. In the first, five volunteers are asked to plan a company picnic or holiday party. After the first suggestion is made, each successive idea must begin with the words “Yes, but…” It usually goes something like this:

“Let’s have the party on a cruise ship.”
“Yes, but… people could get seasick.”
“Yes, but… we could hand out Dramamine.”
“Yes, but… some people don’t like to take pills.”
“Yes, but… that’s their problem.”
“Yes, but… we want to have a nice party.”
“Yes, but… we’re never going to please everyone.”
“Yes, but… we could at least have a party that won’t make everyone sick.”
“Yes, but… I’m feeling kind of sick now.”

Entertaining, perhaps, but not much of a party. If the exercise does not conclude in an argument, it tends to degenerate into lots of discouraged and silent participants staring at each other and the facilitator, devoid of ideas. Everyone is relieved to sit down.

Now comes round two. Five more volunteers are invited to complete the same task – planning a company party – with one variation. This time, instead of starting their sentences with “Yes, but…” they begin each offer with our words, “yes, AND…” With the adjustment, the dialogue progresses in this fashion:
“Let’s have the party on a cruise ship.”
“Yes, and… we could have a dance band.”
“Yes, and… a giant buffet.”
“Yes, and… lots of drinks.
“Yes, and… a karaoke machine.”
“Yes, and… we can have juice for the teetotalers.”
“Yes, and… cookies.”
“Yes!”
“Yes, and… clowns.”
“Yes!”
This time, the participants report feeling happy, enthusiastic and relaxed. Observers agree that even if it is a little wacky, this sounds like a much more enjoyable party to attend. Everyone understands that saying, “yes, but…” is just a cagey way of saying, “no”. Nothing that comes before it counts. Whereas saying, “yes, and…” allows the team members to accept and build on others’ offers.

Trainers must practice “yes, and-ing” as much as they teach it. The more of a knowledge expert we become, the easier it can be to fall into the trap of shutting participants down, delivering our material and our ideas in our way, without really hearing and building on the participants’ offers. By seeking to find the value in every comment, every objection, facilitators can enhance the value of their course and the probability that individuals will integrate and apply their learning.

Tell Stories

As the art of improvisational theatre matures, improvisers and audiences are gravitating toward more narrative forms. A diet of nothing but wacky gags just does not satisfy after a while. Similarly, organizations are rediscovering the power of story to help them align behind a vision, create a culture, sell a product. Most organizational leaders now realize that presenting graphs and numbers will not motivate their people. What will inspire them is a compelling story that weaves that information together. People love stories. Jerome Breuner says, “Story is meaning.” The way we make sense of the world is by linking little bits of data together into a connected whole. Stories deepen learning, enhance retention of information, and give us a context for all of our daily choices and activities. As trainers, when we support the deliberate telling and creating of stories, we support learning.

Ultimately, storytelling is an innate human ability. One can, though, hone specific storytelling skills. Improvisers work on both creating a solid narrative structure and on adding rich, engaging details. And just to add a degree of difficulty, improvisers often tell their stories collaboratively. These collaborative storytelling activities can be mined by trainers to introduce or review virtually any topic, or to teach communication and collaboration skills.

Perform

Something even more fundamental underlies this whole endeavor. Improvisers perform. They learn to play different characters, show different facets of themselves, and act in different ways, depending on the needs of a scene. They learn to stretch their repertoire of behaviors, and develop a facility with changing their bodies, voices, and attitudes, to best effect.

At first, the idea of playing a role – giving a performance – in our real, everyday live may seem uncomfortable. We are supposed to be “authentic”. We see ourselves as individuals with specific ways of thinking and responding that are inviolate. We take comfort in instruments like Myers-Briggs, or DiSC, that tell us who we are and how we predictably respond. But, in fact, we play roles all the time. Consciously or unconsciously, we change our demeanor, our language, our responses, depending on our immediate objectives, who we are interacting with, and where we are. Improv can help us become more aware of the choices we make and expand our capacity to perform effectively. As trainers, of course, we are also giving formal presentations/performances regularly. And, increasingly, in corporate America, our clients are too. The act of improvising strengthens our performance muscles and allows us to increase our effectiveness and trainers, and as humans.

The Application

Some improv activities have become familiar to trainers who may not even know their origins. And some exercises from the improv world may not seem much like performance games. There are, after all, thousands of games improvisers use to hone their skills and ingrain the above principles. Below you will find a mere smattering of some of the most popular and unique improv activities, and how they can be applied. Of course, many of the following activities can be used in more than one way.

Ice-Breakers

Performers and athletes warm up before their events. Good trainers know that learners must be warmed up, as well. In a training session, “ice-breakers” serve to relax the participants, creative a safe and welcoming environment, and set some ground-rules of participation. Here are a couple of improv activities that have become popular ice-breakers.

Colleague Commercials: In pairs, participants interview each other and then present a commercial for their colleague to the rest of the group. This activity has number of strengths to recommend it. First, the participants get to connect with someone else in the room in a deeper and more complete way than if they were merely listening to everyone say a sentence or two. A bond develops between the pairs, which can help people feel more at home. Second, because each person is introducing another, and doing it in the form of a commercial no less, they are free to – nay, required to – brazenly highlight their partner’s best, most impressive and interesting characteristics, something that has a very different flavor if one did it for oneself. (And most participants would not.) Finally, the performance aspect of this simple activity sets the bar for participation high, while still focusing the learners on their colleagues, rather than themselves. After performing a commercial, most other activities will seem easy and tame.

Stats: Stats is another getting-to-know-each-other activity. The participants sit in chairs in a circle, with one chair-less person standing in the center. The person in the middle shouts out a fact about himself and everyone to whom that fact also applies must get up and find a new chair. The game creates an environment in which the participants themselves control what they reveal about themselves, and decide what they wish to learn about others. In addition, the exercise is designed so that it is not the most aggressive or most vocal people who are in control. In fact, it may turn out that the more retiring team members find themselves in the center of the circle more. This enables those who might not otherwise have a voice to lead the discussion. Stats also allows self-revelation in a low-pressure, light-hearted atmosphere, where it might not feel so loaded. Doctors in a patient-physician communication skills course, for example, were shocked during this activity to find how many of their colleagues struggled with the same senses of insecurity and being overwhelmed that they themselves felt. Admitting such “weaknesses” was such a taboo, that the doctors had never shared their experiences.

Needs Assessment

The playfulness and light-heartedness of improv, with its demands that participants dare to be spontaneous and risk sharing themselves, make improv a nice tool for exploring the current state and uncovering needs, without blame or pressure. Stats, listed above, can be used for the purpose of uncovering group needs. By asking the group to focus their sharing on a specific topic area, the trainer can get a sense of what resonates with more or fewer participants, and what knowledge and attitudes exist in the room. Some other needs assessment improv games include:

Experts: An improvised version of a simple talk show format, one participant plays the host, and another a guest “expert”. As a needs analysis game, it can be fun to have the expert be from the future, discussing both the current state, and what happened later. The activity can be framed to focus on the individual or the organization. If it is the collective that is the focus, have other participants ask questions, and debrief after the activity to capture others’ reactions and thoughts. The idea with this activity is not for the expert to get things right, it is to start a conversation. In fact, with especially serious groups, it can help, not only to have the expert from the future, but to give them a specialty that takes away from literal analysis, like art historian or archeologist.

Color/Advance: Story sharing is also a wonderful way to start a workshop and learn more about the participants. This activity is a guided storytelling activity that allows both the teller and receiver to delve more deeply into a story and understand it in a richer way. It goes like this: The participants are divided into pairs. Partner A is asked to tell a story. When using Color/Advance as a needs analysis, the story should be true. The facilitator can prompt, “Share a time (dealing with the topic) when you felt either extremely successful or really frustrated and ineffective.” Partner B acts as a guide/editor/director. Whenever the guide hears something that he wants to know more about, he says, “Color the _______”. The storyteller then describes, in as much detail as possible, that element of the story. When the director is satisfied with the details, she says “Advance”, and the storyteller continues with whatever happens next.

For example:

  • Storyteller: Last year I had two partners who were both assigning me more work than humanly possible.
  • Guide: Color ‘more work than humanly possible.
  • Storyteller: “One kept giving me assignments the day before they were due to the client. There was no way I could produce a complete, polished result in the amount of time he gave me. Especially when there was necessary research involved. The other simply gave me a workload that should have been divided between three people.”
  • Guide: Advance
  • Storyteller: Well, I decided I should talk to them about it, because I didn’t think I could live up to my own or their standards this way. What a disaster…

The stories can be debriefed as a group, or individuals can make notes afterwards to inform their work.

Another variation has one pair telling a story in front of the room, and works as a conversation starter, as well.

The difference between an improv activity, like “Color/Advance”, and simply sharing stories lies in the interaction between the teller and the director. Because there is shared control of the story, the partners are collaborating in the moment to find what is most compelling. Often the teller will report remembering details and finding meaning that had eluded them to this point, even if they had told the story before. “Color/Advance” also develops creativity and communication skills, of course.

Creativity

A well-known improv teacher once said, “If you can’t think of anything to say, you are censoring what you thought of.” As evidenced by the principles above, improvisers believe that the secret of being “creative” lies in simply getting out of your own way, daring to be silly, or boring, or obvious, and trusting your impulses. This frame differs from some creativity tests which equate originality of thought or number of ideas with creativity. Improvisers will tell you it is the getting-out-of-the-way part, not the coming-up-with-ideas part. “Sound Ball”, described above, is an example of an activity that helps bypass those nasty little censors and lets ideas bubble forth unimpeded.

Picture/Math: Another activity designed to undermine the inner gate-keeper is “Picture/Math”. Participants work in groups of three. The person in the middle is on the “hot seat.” The participant on their right asks them to describe pictures in an imaginary photo album. The third participant intersperses simple math problems for the participant on the “hot seat” to solve at the same time. The rational mind, then, is kept busy, leaving the generative, visual mind free to create. Most people, after this experience, realize that creating is really the easy part. And a good portion of being creative is feeling that you are so.
What Would _____ Do? All that said, a part of being creative does lie in the ability to think “outside the box” or at least with fresh eyes. “What would ____ do” is a game in which groups of participants are given a famous person. Their task is to brainstorm strategies to deal with a difficult issue as if they were that person. What would Oprah do? The U.S. President? Homer Simpson? Exploring the situation through someone else’s eyes allows the participants to offer silly or stupid ideas without feeling their egos are at risk. And the new lens may uncover some unique and viable ideas.

Teamwork and Collaboration

The fly in the ointment for improvisers, and for many professionals in today’s organizations, is that not only must they create, but they must create collaboratively. This is where the idea of accepting and building on offers becomes so valuable. Teaching the skill of “yes, and-ing” – accepting and adding – can transform a groups ability to create together.

Yes, and Stories: Once the concept of “yes, and” is introduced, virtually any improv game can be employed to exercise the accepting offers muscle. A favorite used by improv trainers is “Yes, And Stories” because it allows the participants and trainer to examine the offers and how they are accepted in minute detail. Very simply, the participants create a story one sentence at a time. Each sentence, after the initial one start with the words “Yes, and…” The point is not to tell the most interesting or original story. The goal is to really receive, accept and build with the offers being made. This simple exercise reveals how difficult it can be to co-create – sharing control and responsibility – and how easy it is to get seduced by your own ideas, your assumptions and unspoken agendas.

Conversation Weave: Once teams notice their tendencies, and the difficulty of really hearing and receiving offers, they can work their muscles in these areas. In Conversation Weave, three or four volunteers get up in front of the group. They each have an individual conversation with an imaginary friend. They take turns speaking (though not in any predetermined order), each saying a few sentences at a time. The stories should be unrelated – calling home to wish Mom a happy birthday, going on a job interview, disciplining a child – but the participants begin to weave words and details from the other stories into their own as the exercise progresses. In addition to providing entertainment, the activity works the participants’ listening and awareness muscles, and it highlights how we are influenced by events and attitudes around us.

Presentation Skills

Whether in an official presentation skills class, or in a more general leadership, teambuilding or communication context, trainers increasingly turn to improv and the theater to teach participants about how to give a compelling performance. “Influencing skills”, “charismatic leadership”, “media savvy” – the buzz words go on and on. Simply put, organizations are recognizing the importance of the “how”, not simply the “what” of a message. Any performance game or role-play that gives a participant an opportunity to stretch in new ways, can help participants recognize that they have more behavioral choices than they might have thought.

Status Games: Improvisers have a few favorites that trainers have borrowed. An especially compelling way that improvisers are teaching individuals to expand their performance ranges is by exploring “status” behaviors. Status is defined, for our purposes, as power relationships. Status is dynamic, changing with circumstance, and can only exist when measured in relation to something else. Keith Johnstone, the creator of Theatresports ™ and author of Impro, recognized that status can be understood not as something we are, but as something we do. We confer or accept status through our behaviors, and it is those interactions which determine who is perceived as holding the power.

Status is not the same as official title or rank. In studying power, social science researchers have investigated different sources of power. They have then divided them into two classes, positional and personal. We make a mistake if we assume the two always go hand-in-hand. The work of actors and improvisers can help us play with our personal status, regardless of our positional power.

How can the concept of status help us communicate better?

    • Our awareness of status can help us navigate situations with appropriate behavior.
    • Equalizing status facilitates open communication.
    • Raising our own status gives us more authority and can increase trust.
    • Raising others’ status communicates empathy and can increase trust.

Playing with status also highlights the power of nonverbal behaviors to change the sense of a message. In an exercise adapted from Impro, participants are given a short script of neutral dialogue, and asked to play it over and over with different status relationships. The huge effect of a roll of the eyes or a giggle is stunning. Often, I will use a job-interview setting for the short scene, written by the participants. It might look something like this:
A: Good morning.
B: Good morning.
A: Have a seat.
B: Thank you.
A: I have looked over your resume.
B: Yes?
A: I see you worked at Global Inc.
B: Yes. For a number of years.
A: Very impressive.
B: Thanks.

Often, participants assume that the interviewer will have high status by default. All the actor playing the role must do, though, is sound impressed and eager to please, and the interviewee’s status rises. Conversely, even a line like “very impressive” can seem cutting when said with a dismissive tone.

Because it is so fundamental to our social structures, our sensitivity to status is highly honed. “Status Cards” plays with status behaviors. Participants are given a playing card that they put on their foreheads without looking at the face. The card signifies their status, and the group treats each member accordingly. When they are asked to line up in order of status, based on how they were treated, most groups have over 90% accuracy, and many individuals can guess their cards exactly.

Both within the arena of status dynamics, and generally, when individuals recognize life as a performance, and think in terms of choosing how to “play the scene”, they expand their options, and are often more successful in navigating life challenges. As Performance of a Lifetime, an executive education firm in New York City, specializing in the use of theatre and improv techniques in business settings, says, they become “better performers on the job.”

Review and Close

In the theatre, everyone knows how you begin and how you end are much more important that what comes in between. Trainers know the same thing. A number of improv activities can be used to review the material, increase retention, and close a session with energy. Many of the activities already listed here can be modified for use as closers – Color/Advance, Expert Interviews, Stats. In addition, trainers have enjoyed the following.

Elimination Lists: Four or five participants stand in front of the group. The facilitator assigns or elicits a category. She then points to someone and that person names something that falls into that category. If a player makes a mistake, they are eliminated and another person takes there spot. There are three types of mistakes: pausing too long before saying something; saying something that doesn’t fit into the category; or saying something that has already been said. For example, the topic could be “products we make that are under $500” if you were training a group on product knowledge. Or the topic might be “Words to use to diffuse a conflict” or “Characteristics of a high-performance team”. The topic could even be as broad as “Things you learned today.” The game flows quickly, mistakes are inevitable and without real consequences, and participants are reminded of the course content, as well as having the opportunity to share their knowledge and thoughts.

Story Seeds: When looking for an activity that is a little more thoughtful and less manic, trainers have been drawn to Story Seeds. The facilitator or group members come up with four neutral sentences. Then, individually, or in small groups, participants create stories encompassing those sentences, adding characters, details, connections. In a communication skills course, for example, the sentences might be something like. “Carol walked into the partner’s office with sweaty palms.” “He tossed the papers on the desk.” “A cell phone rang.” “With all of her new skills in play, Carol left triumphant.” The participants, then, incorporate the day’s learning to reach the happy ending, and employ their own skills virtually in the process.

Summary

As we see, the job of a professional improviser and the job of an effective human being are really the same. Create a supportive environment, build and respond to the offers around you, connect with other by getting to know them, share your own stories, and tailor your behavior to fit the scene. And because improvisers consciously practice these skills, and create activities that support them, we, as trainers, can employ their techniques. Not only can we pass them along to others, but we can practice them ourselves, and enhance performance, in all senses of the word.

For more on this topic, here are a few of my personal favorite resources. The list is, of course, by no means exhaustive. And remember improv, like training, is an art. The best way to learn about it is to do it. If you wish to play, there is almost certainly an improv company near you.

Bibliography

Johnstone, K. 1979. Impro: Improvisation and the theatre. New York: Theatre Arts Books.

Halpern, C., Close, D., Johnson, K. (1994). Truth in comedy: The manual of improvisation. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether Publishing, LTD.

Spolin, V. (1983). Improvisation for the theater. Northwestern University Press.

Parkin, M. (1998). Tales for trainers: Using stories and metaphors to facilitate learning. London: Kogan Page Limited.

Allred, K. (1996). Class notes, Negotiation, Columbia University.

French, J.R.P., & Raven, B.H. (1959). The basis of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.

Schank, R.C. (1990). Tell me a story. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Armstrong, A. (1992). Managing by storying around: A new method of leadership. New York: Doubleday.

Campbell, J. (1973). A hero with a thousand faces. Bollingen Series/ Princeton University Press.

Vogler, C. (1998). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.

Chekhov, M. (1953). To the actor: On the technique of acting. New York: Harper and Row.

Improvisation-Based Organizational Development

by Kat Koppett, Koppett + Company, and Adam Grupper, Act Professional

Improvisation and Business

Improvisation has broad applications for businesses and organizations?

For those familiar with improvisation via shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway” or comedy clubs, improv may seem haphazard, even chaotic. In fact, improv is a well-developed discipline designed to support innovation, achieve goals in the face of unexpected and ever-changing obstacles, build trust, and enhance presence and charisma.

Improvisation is also an increasingly valued platform for workplace development and training. After all, what improvisers do – work collaboratively, flexibly, under extreme pressure, and without knowing what will happen next – is what business professionals do every day as well.

Improv principles and techniques are currently employed by organizations around the world, in wildly diverse industries to address performance development subjects including:

  • leadership presence and influence,
  • change management,
  • mentoring,
  • client relations,
  • team building,
  • strategic planning and problem-solving,
  • creativity and innovation
  • and creating cultures of inclusion.

In a business and organizational context, improv training enables individuals to:

  • develop active listening skills
  • collaborate effectively
  • problem-solve efficiently
  • build stronger relationships
  • create supportive environments
  • successfully negotiate conflict and change
  • strengthen executive presence
  • enhance innovation and risk-taking

Why Improv Training Is Especially Valuable

Fundamentals of Improvisation

Being Present

Central to improv is being focused, attentive, and in a state of readiness to respond to whatever happens. By being present and “in the moment,” improvisers demonstrate their attentiveness to the needs of their scene partners, and take responsibility for ensuring that everyone succeeds in the scene. In a deeper sense, being present also means “showing up,” not just as improvisers but as human beings, with life experiences, emotions and a willingness to engage with others. The result is trusting relationships and supportive environments – a foundation not only of improv, but of any successful endeavor.

Practicing “Yes, And”

In business and organizational cultures, people commonly believe they add value to interactions by expressing opinions and passing judgments. Conversations are frequently agenda-driven, transactional or fixed on predetermined outcomes. In contrast, improvisers strive to follow the rule of “Yes, And:” to be non-judgmental and accepting of “offers.” In the world of improv, an offer is anything anyone does or says: words, body language, emotional states, etc. The “Yes” of “Yes, And” means that improvisers accept the offers their scene partners give them (note the difference between “acceptance” and “agreement”). The “And” means that improvisers use the offers they’ve just accepted as a springboard, informing what they, in turn, do or say.

Business and organizational leaders (at all levels) who practice “Yes, And” respond to people and situations as they are, not as they would wish them to be. They become active listeners who demonstrate their listening skills by accepting, and building upon, others’ input. They work to be flexible, responsive and collaborative; to be willing to set aside their own agendas in furtherance of supporting relationships. For their staff, colleagues, bosses and clients – who know the difference between being truly listened to and being disregarded – the impact is profound.

Telling Stories

The power of a good story is universal. Stories are the dynamic, robust way in which human beings communicate. It is through stories that individuals learn, and cultures are created. It is through story that we inspire others, learn from our experiences, and envision the future. Through the practices of sharing, crafting and soliciting stories, organizations enhance their productivity, goal-alignment, and motivation. In improv, story is the difference between funny, but meaningless fluff that audiences quickly tire of and engaging, robust, layered entertainment. Good improvised scenes, like any theatre, must be coherent, compelling and relatable.

Increasingly, the power of story is being embraced by organizations at all levels, because, as Jerome Bruner, noted cognitive psychologist and learning theorist says, “Story IS meaning.”.

Performing

It’s obvious that improvisers are performers. What’s less obvious is that we are all performers. We are multifaceted people who possess a multiplicity of identities, play a variety of roles, and work, play and live within a vast array of contexts. Each of these identities, roles and contexts requires us to perform in different ways.

Acknowledging this ability means we accept that our actions are the product of choices we make. Many performances are habitual, but when we recognize ourselves as performers, we begin to expand our range of options. We can make different choices; perform in different ways. By embracing the transformational power of performance, individuals embrace the possibility of change, growth and development.

Methods/Tools

Experiential Activities

Improvisers believe that listening, building relationships, presence, creativity, risk-taking and flexibility are “muscles” that can be developed and strengthened.

Improv activities are designed to expand participants’ view of the power and importance of these skills, and to exercise the performance muscles, rather than just imparting knowledge. Improv training is interactive, engaging and experiential. Learners are impacted emotionally and psychologically, as well as cognitively, in ways that deepen understanding and retention. And the activities can be employed in ongoing ways to maintain those performance muscles, much like using a stair master or ball machine to maintain body muscles.

When integrated into more traditional learning and development sessions, improv activities can help learners understand how to practice new ways of engaging. The activities provide “jolts” that spark new mindsets, and provide tools for ongoing development of the skills that are introduced in formal learning environments.

Role-Plays

While role playing is frequently used in training initiatives, it is also often cited as the most dreaded activity in any training. It is considered artificial at best; humiliating and irrelevant at worst. So, there are many advantages to placing it squarely within the context of theatrical performance. The emphasis on theatricality gives participants the license, the “stage,” to experiment with bolder choices than they might ordinarily employ in typical role-play scenarios. A theatrical context also gives role playing all the structure of theatrical rehearsal, allowing the facilitator and participants to freeze the action, replay a pivotal moment within the scene, adjust the stakes of the scene, and swap out role-players.

When working with trained improvisers, instructional designers have a number of options. In terms of content they can:

  • Create role-play scenarios that are directly modeled from the experiences of the workshop participants. “High-fidelity” scenarios offer credibility, make obvious links back to the job, and encourage the brainstorming of specific language and solutions.
  • Craft scenes that are metaphorical, capturing the essence of an important workplace issue while placing it in an industry or scene different from that of the participants Metaphorical scenarios allow facilitators and participants to examine a workplace issue without getting bogged down in the particulars of the participants’ industry content or questions of a literal “right” or “wrong” answer.

In terms of process, facilitators and designers may use the participants themselves to engage in role-plays or to employ professional role-players, in any combination. There are many advantages to using professional role-players to act as “foils” for participants in scenarios. Professional role-players can adjust their performances, modifying their characters’ personality traits and degrees of push-back to make role-play scenarios more realistic and challenging. Professional role-players are trained to be attentive and responsive to the tactics, which participants employ during role-plays. Then, during debriefs, they can highlight moments when participants’ choices had a significant impact on the conversation.

Individual Coaching and Expert Facilitation

The central tenets of improvisation – being present, practicing “Yes/And”, harnessing the power of story, and acknowledging the value of performance – inform the improv coaches methods. Improv coaches take pride in creating “consequence-free zones” in which coachees and workshop participants can experiment freely and where mistakes are celebrated. Improv coaches work to listen attentively, to bring each participant’s voice into the room, to connect ideas, explore unexamined and neglected issues and generate new best practices by embracing the input of everyone  they engage.

In one-on-one sessions, clients can get performance feedback and tips on how to expand their options to best meet their objectives and build positive relationships in virtually any context.

Applications

Improv principles and techniques have proven to be valuable in any situation in which human beings need to interact productively. Some of the more popular applications include:

  • Team Building
  • Change Management
  • Leadership
  • Managing Difficult Conversations
  • Providing Feedback
  • Client Relations
  • Creativity
  • Diversity
  • Presentation Skills
  • Building Executive Presence

Program Design

Nearly all our programs are highly customized to meet the needs of the specific culture, attendees, and objectives. Programs range from an hour to three days, with half-day and one-day programs proving the most popular…

Contact us any time for details.

We Are

Kat Koppett is the eponymous founder of Koppett + Company, LLC (www.koppett.com) a training and consulting company specializing in the use of theatre and storytelling techniques to enhance individual and organizational performance.

Her book on how to use improvisational theatre techniques in training, Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership and Learning, is used by trainers, teachers and organizational leaders around the world.

Kat holds a B.F.A. in Drama from New York University and an M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, and has worked with teachers, administrators, doctors, engineers, lawyers and young people of all sorts.

A founding member of the Applied Improvisation Network and a presenting member of ASTD and ISPI, Kat has designed and delivered training such diverse clients as Chanel, Merck, Kaiser-Permanente, NYSID, JP Morgan Chase, Glens Falls Hospital, Cadence Design Systems, Eli Lilly, and The Farm Bureau in places such as India, Brazil, Paris and Oklahoma. Her areas of specialty include leadership and communication skills, creativity and innovation, teamwork and conflict resolution, and presentation skills.
In addition, Kat is the Training Director of The Mop & Bucket Theatre company, (www.mopco.org). TheatreWeek Magazine named Kat one of the year’s “Unsung Heroes” for her creation of the completely improvised musical format, “Spontaneous Broadway”.

Adam Grupper is the president of Act Professional (www.actprof.com), a consulting company specializing in the application of acting techniques and principles of theater to organizational and business settings. He has designed workshops and/or provided training and coaching for clients including Signature Bank, Estée Lauder, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Citigroup, ArcellorMittal and Barclays. Adam balances his work as a trainer, coach and facilitator with a successful career as a professional actor. His performance credits include nine Broadway productions and numerous appearances on film and television. In addition, Adam is an award-winning audiobook narrator who has recorded works by Stephen King, Bob Woodward and Tom Clancy among others.

Adam graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in psychology. He has been honored by the American Society for Training and Development with the Ronda J. Ormont Award. As a performer, he has received the National Institute for Music Theater’s Mary Martin Prize, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s Barrymore nomination for best actor and numerous audiobook honors from Audiofile Magazine, Publishers Weekly, iTunes and the Audio Publishers Association.

Contact

Adam Grupper                         Kat Koppett
agrupper@actprof.com             kat@koppett.com
www.actprof.com                     www.koppett.com
(917) 838-0424                       (518) 280-1089