With files from Margret Nyfors, director of public education at Vancouver TheatreSports League, and Ken Lawson, lead facilitator, head of design and development for Improv for Business at Vancouver TheatreSports League.
Improv comedy is the ultimate exercise in thinking on your feet. Performers practice the art of pulling polished, funny skits out of thin air with zero preparation or practice. With just a suggestion or two from the audience, a talented troupe can conjure spontaneous comedy gold on the spot.
While improv comedy is typically performed on a stage and in front of a crowd, its techniques and philosophy have applications in the world of social media marketing—specifically how teams can generate new ideas for campaigns, editorial content, funny social posts, GIFs, or videos.
Improv tactics for business can transform a regular meeting of marketers into a tiger-tight troupe of barnstorming marketeers cranking out next-level ideas. Imagine what would come of a quarterly brainstorm session if it were conducted by an improv troupe. What would that look like and how would they go about it?
5 lessons from improv comedy to take to your next brainstorm meeting
1. The best ideas happen in supportive environment
Improvisers take a unique approach to producing ideas. Rather than putting an emphasis on getting their bright idea in the spotlight, they focus more on creating a safe and encouraging environment for their partners to share ideas. This supportive “accepting-ness” is a core improv value. All ideas, regardless of whether you think they’re bad, should not be criticized or questioned, but embraced and explored. Always.
A group of brainstorming social media marketers should commit to trying to make each other look good. When everyone in the group has your back, the need to focus on yourself and your ideas dissolves. In a marketing brainstorm, this might mean advocating for the people who haven’t had a chance to speak yet. Or staying committed to giving the most charitable interpretation possible to an idea that at first strikes you as weak or unusable.
Having partners who respond with a “Yes, and…” to any idea you put forward relieves the fear and creative blocks that can hold brainstorming sessions back. Responding with a “Yes, and…” is a fundamental part of improv. It means reflexively accepting a statement someone has said to you (the ‘Yes’), and then building on their idea with another statement (the ‘and…’).
As a brainstorm leader, do your part by focusing on giving the group credit for great ideas, not just individuals. Everyone should be responsible for bringing out the best performance in everyone else.
2. Co-create, don’t interrogate
Remember that asking questions can make people feel defensive. And questioning a concept too early in a brainstorm session can turn off the flow of ideas. You’re co-creating, not interrogating. Wait until all ideas have been squeezed out before asking your questions.
And when you do feel the urge to question an idea, respond instead with a strong statement or an offer—something that builds on whatever came before it (the ol’ “Yes, and…” trick). Questioning is easy. But “Yes, and…”-ing an offer to see what shakes out is a much more constructive exercise.
3. Better listening produces better ideas
Experienced improvisers are expert listeners. In a scene, they don’t cut each other off but instead listen intently as scene-mates finish their ideas. Cutting someone off means cutting off ideas and crucial information.
Training yourself to listen in a way that gives people the space to share their ideas is sound advice for dominant members of a marketing team. Being assertive with your idea may help it become the one the group is talking about, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best idea.
In a marketing brainstorm session, everyone should be heard and all ideas should be given the benefit of the doubt. There’s a direct correlation between the quality of listening and the qualities of the resulting ideas—so listen up!
Here are a few exercises improvisers use to warm up the active listening muscle:
- Person A says a statement to Person B. Person B then responds to Person A with a statement that begins with the last letter of Person A’s statement. Person A in turn responds with a statement that begins with the last letter of Person B’s statement, and so on. It may sound simple, but it’s deceptively hard and gives great insight into how we often don’t pay attention to what others are saying.
- One person begins by holding a ball and telling a story. After a sentence or two, they toss the ball to another person in the group who expands on the story before tossing the ball to someone else. The game continues in this fashion with only the ball carrier speaking while everyone else listens so that they can continue the narrative whenever the ball is thrown to them.
- The “Word at a Time Story” is an exercise that starts with one person beginning a story with a single word. The person to their right utters a second and the game continues around a circle until the story reaches its natural conclusion.
4. Commit to an idea
When you’re in an idea jam session with your marketing peeps, be all in and be present. Fully commit to what you’re saying, even if you’re not 100 percent sure of it. Simply trust your idea. Your scene partners will see the diamonds in it, even if you can’t. And even ideas that are ultimately unusable still do the important work of catalyzing reactions in fellow brainstormers.
So don’t wimp. Be bold. Bold statements encourage boldness in others. Hedging and questioning just slows down the process. As improvisors say, “Don’t play in the gray, black, or white. Make a choice and go all in all the way.”
To relieve some of the anxiety around diving in head first, remember this sage bit of wisdom: there are no mistakes, only gifts. Mistakes in an improv scene often translate into comedy gold. And when you stop being afraid of making mistakes, you become fearless, which lets you start turning “mistakes” into creative wins. As a group partner, be prepared to explore the mistakes, to explore the “dumb” thing. You’ll be surprised at how often you hit pay dirt.
5. Monkeywrench your way out of a rut
People in a brainstorm setting are prone to a phenomenon called “anchoring,” which refers to a tendency to rely too heavily on a piece of information or specific idea when making decisions. And once the anchor is set, there is a bias toward that thing. For example, if a dominant group member kicks off a meeting with a campaign idea and if the idea anchors, then all subsequent discussion will tend to revolve around it, even if it’s only mediocre.
Experienced improvisers combat anchoring in the same way they change course in a dead end scene: by throwing a monkeywrench. That is, they throw out an idea that’s radically different from what’s being discussed.
Ask yourself: What’s an idea that’s 180 degrees different from the idea we’ve been flogging for the past 15 minutes? Then, when there’s a natural pause in the discussion, toss it in like a grenade.
A fun group exercise is the Monkeywrench Game. Here, one person starts telling a story and then another player throws in a random word. The initial player will incorporate the random word into the story. Once incorporated, the other player will suggest yet another random word. The outside influence will keep the original player from staying set on their own idea and will keep the ideas fresh. And it will also show that they can handle any outside offers that come their way. Repeat until everyone in the group has had a chance to be the storyteller.
Push the button
In addition to the lessons described above, here are a few additional tips from improvisation to help you get the most out of your next brainstorm session:
- As the group leader, be sure to reiterate the rules of engagement before a brainstorm session begins, so everyone’s on the same page. Even veteran improvisors need reminders.
- Don’t be precious or protective about your ideas—be open to being changed!
- Focus on the glory of the group, the scene, or the campaign rather than your great idea. Think about ideas as a group creation, that is, as collective ownership over all output. It may be a cliche, but there really is no “I” in team.
In improv, something that brings a scene to a natural close is called a “button.” The button on this article is a reminder to keep a positive mindset. And when in doubt, remember that joyful always plays well on stage—and in the boardroom.
Vancouver TheatreSports League
The Vancouver TheatreSports League is a professional theatre organization dedicated to exceptional improv-based work. VTSL offers customized corporate training including team building, creativity and adaptability, sales and presentation skills as well as sessions on turbocharging strategic planning sessions and corporate retreats. Inspire a culture of yes through improv-based team building with Vancouver TheatreSports.
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