Why Being A Comedian Will Make You A Better Manager

July 1, 2015 Dan Zahler

A moment of panic. Danny runs around stage, wailing in the high-pitched tones of a little girl who has to pee and can’t find a bathroom. Where are we? Within seconds, I have to figure out what character I am playing and how to respond in an authentic way.

Welcome to Improv Comedy. Improv isn’t just a silly game—it relies heavily on structure and theory. Good improvisers work together while adhering to a clear set of guidelines. It’s an exercise that stimulates and opens the mind. There’s a reason improv training has become so popular at business schools and corporate events.

Here are the rules of Improv. Want to be a better manager? Start with “yes” …

Yes-and. Rule #1 of improv. The idea is to 1) agree with and 2) add to the reality your partner is creating. This is most important at a scene’s beginning to establish a “base reality”: who the characters are, what they’re doing and where they are. Don’t disagree with or deny your partner’s reality. If she decides you’re in a church, don’t say “No, we’re in a hot air balloon.” Take her idea and build on it: “Yes, and the preacher looks like he’s drunk.”

Adopting a yes-and mentality helps break down walls and encourage people take risks. You’re more willing to throw out crazy ideas when you’re in a supportive environment. The same holds true in business. It’s important to foster an open culture where people aren’t afraid to say the “wrong” thing. Sometimes the most offbeat ideas turn out to be the best ones.

Listen. The most effective improv performers listen to their scene partners and react in an authentic way. A common mistake is planning ahead what you’re going to say, even after your partner responds with new information that changes the scene. It’s like that line from Ferris Bueller: Improv moves pretty fast, and if you’re not listening you could miss something important. Likewise in a client meeting — you may have your presentation all planned out, but you’ve got to stay focused on what others are saying and adjust your behavior accordingly. Otherwise it feels less like a collaboration and more like a lecture. If you’re not listening, you won’t figure out what the problem is.

Pay attention to body language. Many of our exercises involved observing what the other person was doing — how they’re moving, talking, what kind of energy they’re giving off — and copying it. One person starts talking in gibberish, with a specific emotion (angry, happy, sad). The other instantly copies the emotion of the first player, and speaks in his own gibberish.

This “mirroring” is important in establishing relationships with people. We tend to gravitate toward people with whom we have something in common. You can have the best data and statistics backing you up, but if you can’t connect on an emotional, human level, it’s hard to get someone to trust you.

Be decisive. In improv there’s a “bias for action.” Don’t talk about doing something, do it. If you’ve decided something about a scene, e.g. the conversation between two state senators is taking place at Yankee Stadium, then share that information. The sooner you commit to an idea, the easier it is to get others on the same page as you. Active, specific choices move things forward and let others build off your vision.

Take suggestions. In a typical improv show, the players will take a suggestion from the audience to get them started. The two most common audience suggestions are “dildo” and “pineapple”, according to our amazing instructor, Dan Hodapp. The suggestion is the jumping-off point for the scene. More importantly, it lets the audience feel like they’re participating, influencing the show they’re about to see.

The same principle applies in business — even if you think you know the best way to do something, it’s good to get input from others on your team. Make them feel involved and empowered, like they have a stake in the decision. Being open to suggestions makes teams more effective and leads to bold, creative ideas.

Every conversation in life is an act of improvisation. Unless you’re an actor or politician, no one hands you a script for the day. Improv teaches you to be present in the moment, listen attentively, and contribute freely — useful skills in any workplace.

I wasn’t able to help my scene partner find a bathroom. I ended up teaching him an elaborate pee-dance ritual to control his bladder. As we jumped up and down like maniacs, the real world receded from view, and I embraced the new reality we had created for ourselves.

(Originally posted on Dan’s blog, Notes from the Digital Underground)


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About the Author

Dan Zahler

Dan Zahler is an Independent Consultant with BTG based in NY and LA. His expertise is in Product Development, VC / Private Equity and Marketing. A Harvard Law Grad, he has worked for McKinsey & Company and GLG. He has 15 years of experience launching and advising tech and media startups. He is also a piano player, an app developer, and a film producer.

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