a lesson from improv

When I started college, I was sure my calling was comedy. Up to the age of 19, it seemed like I was pretty good at making people laugh – how hard could it be?

My first week on campus, the undergraduate improv troupe put on a free show in the lobby of my dorm. A whole bunch of weirdos taking suggestions from the audience as jumping off points and ad-libbing scenes right in front of us. Surely I could do that!

Twice my freshman year, I tried out for 8th Floor Improv. Twice my freshman year, I bombed the audition.

I didn’t get it – I know I’m clever. I know I’m witty.

But being clever or witty wasn’t the problem. Those were skills are only part of the recipe in improv.

Improv is a consummate team sport. Every member needs to feed off of and work with every other member – a single talented member does not make the group successful by herself.

The number one rule in improv is “Yes, and…”, e.g. a performer takes the lead by creating a premise:

Person 1: “Hey, thanks for coordinating Friendsgiving this year!”

And then a second performer accepts that premise (yes) and then builds upon it (and).

Person 2: “Thanks for coming and bringing your signature stuffed ostrich!”

This format creates a starting point, coordination amongst the team, and a clear forward direction. The alternative, a “no, but,” is jarring because it nullifies the work of the initial performer, and then necessitates a new starting point.

Person 1: “Hey, thanks for coordinating Friendsgiving this year!”

Person 2: “What? We’re in line at Cedar Point.”

When I tried out for 8th Floor, I was a “no, but-er.” I thought I could create a better premise and a better scene – but that made it harder for my team, and awkward for anyone paying attention.

It’s clear to see the parallel to your work. In any brainstorming or creative situation, using “yes, and” will help generate, iterate, and improve the ideas of the individuals in the group. Not only that, but having a collaborative environment will lead individuals to feel more willing to share their ideas.

Of course, there will always be disagreements. But even disagreements can be better handled using this method.

Person 1: “I think the best way to cross this river is to build a catapult.”

Person 2: “I agree we need to get across the river quickly and that can see why you think that. What if we tried a boat?”

It’s not a perfect fit, but acknowledging that you understand a line of thought, even if you disagree with it, will give your teammates the opportunity to change their own mind based on other ideas, and not put them on the defensive.

The same is true in interpersonal and informal exchanges. “Yes, and” people are much more enjoyable to be around and cultivate more fun ideas and experiences.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Play nice and watch the results.


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