How Improv Can Help You Improve
Tips to make you a better performer, communicator, and perhaps a better person.
Improve Through Improvisation
About a year ago Stever Robbins, the Get-It-Done Guy, suggested that I take an improv class. I thought, “Why should I take an improv class? How’s that going to help me?” I decided to marinate my decision. I’m the kind of person that likes to do research and think through my decisions. For example, when I was in school, I was always the last one to turn in my test. Or when I go to buy something, I read all the online reviews first. I'm just not a spur of the moment kind of person. As you might imagine, the idea of taking an improvisation class was something that quite frankly I found a bit scary.
But I’ve been working on trying to make decisions faster, so last week, after thinking about it for an entire year (yes, an entire year) I finally took a four day intensive intro to longform improvisation workshop (I mentioned I like to marinate on my decisions, right?)
Oh, man, I AM SO GLAD I took this class from PHIT (that’s Philly Improv Theater)! It's one of those things--you don't know what you don't know--until you know. Not only did I learn about improvisation, I learned (and was reminded of) several important life lessons. So, today, I'd like to share with you some of my "ah-ha" moments. You probably already know this stuff, but I figure it never hurts to be reminded of the important life lesson stuff, right? Honestly, I’m hoping this article might persuade you to take an improv class or at least go see an improv performance.
What Improv Can Teach Us
So what exactly did I learn or relearn?
Lesson #1: Laugh More
Most importantly, I was reminded that fun, play, and laughter are equally important as serious work. I laughed more in those four days than I had in some time and it made me feel better. Laughter stretches muscles in our face and body, raises our pulse and blood pressure, and causes us to breathe faster. Some researchers say the benefits of laughter are like a mild workout! I know for me, it was great to spend a few days laughing and having fun with other people. It gave me a boost. It definitely put a spring in my step.
I've decided to play more. I'm committed to having more fun. I hope that’s why you’re reading this article—because you find it fun (and informative).
Lesson #2: Commit 100%; Sell It!
I was reminded how important and helpful it is to commit to something 100%. In fact, the bolder I was and the more committed I was to my improv character choices the EASIER it became. Kristen, my teacher, said several times, "Make a choice and commit. When you are able to commit you can settle into the character and then you'll just know what to do."
When I was able to commit 100% to a choice, it reminded me of the feeling I have when I'm been “in the zone” --it gave me that feeling of energized focus. You know that feeling you get when you are so completely absorbed and immersed in the activity that you don't even notice that you’re hungry or that time is passing.
When I committed 100% I was able to shake my feelings of self-consciousness and just have fun! And when I wasn't fully committed, I was shaky. I was nervous and struggling with what to say and do. I was full of self-doubt. It was a horrible feeling.
So whether you're singing in the shower or delivering a presentation, give it your all. Enjoy the process. Participating fully and relaxing into the activity is what leads to success--no matter what your skill level is. Being bold and committed, regardless of what you are doing, is what makes you a standout. So, I’ve decided to commit to commitment!
Lesson #3: Make It About the Present Moment
Speaking of which, toward the end of the last day I found myself not participating. I was thinking about the activities we had done in the morning and I was also worrying about the final performance our group was going to have to do. In essence I wasn't focused on the present moment; I was too busy thinking about the past and the future.
Unfortunately, my distraction caused me to not participate at all in the game we were playing at that very moment. I later realized that not only had I let myself down, but in a way, I had let the rest of the class down too. Because, I wasn't participating they needed to work that much harder. It reminded me of that John Lennon lyric, "Life is what happens when you're busy making plans."
Lesson #4: Listen Fully and React
During one activity, I missed a big offer. What does that mean? My scene partner said, "Yes, we've had five deaths at these waterfalls." That was a very interesting statement that screamed, "Ask me more about THIS, Lisa!" But, I didn't ask him about it. Why? Because I wasn't fully listening. I was only half-heartedly listening.
The irony is that I wasn't listening fully because I was trying to come up with something creative to say. Had I just been fully listening to my partner and not worrying about my response, I would have naturally and easily been able to respond to his big interesting offer with something creative.
Not listening is a common problem. I think many of us, obviously including me, sometimes start thinking about our responses instead of really listening to what our conversation partners are communicating. And we can miss really important stuff when we aren’t fully listening to what is actually being said. I was reminded that listening requires focus and is critical to team creativity.
Lesson #5: Be Specific to Build Connections and Relationships
One of the rules of improvisation is to be as specific as you can be. That should be a rule for all communicators. Think about how much more you are able to communicate when you are specific. Why should you say, “I enjoyed the party last night,” when you could say instead, "I had so much fun singing Karaoke at my sister Maria's baby shower." By being specific you are revealing significantly more information about yourself and this helps your conversation partner to find and make a connection with you.
Improvisation, like life, is a team sport. To be successful you need to connect with the other people around you, and then focus and heighten the relationship. Whether you are trying to close a business deal, talking to your significant other, or performing improv, you can build strong connections by being specific.
Originally, I wasn’t going to write an article on this. I thought it would be best to improvise a show. So, during the workshop, I recorded a short interview with my improv teacher, Kristen Shier. But I realized after we recorded it, that I didn’t fully capture why I was so jazzed and energized. In fact, I’m still not even convinced I’ve fully captured it in this article. So I plan to wrote a short blog piece on my website about how the class helped me to think differently.
I can’t express how strongly I would like to encourage you to take an improv workshop. It doesn’t really matter what you do day in and day out, it doesn’t matter what your profession is, you will gain significantly. Improv can definitely help you to be a better performer, a better speaker, and a better communicator--perhaps even a better person!
This is, Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.
P.S. I asked, Dan our sound editor, to include the improvised interview I did with Kristen Schier, as part of the iTunes feed. (Unfortunately, there’s no transcript of the interview, so if this is of interest, you’ll need to download and listen via iTunes!).