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.

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