By Sarah Walsh
People get into improv comedy for all kinds of reasons—they love making people laugh, they love performing for a crowd—but I would say they rarely pursue improv because it will help in their work life. A few years ago, I started taking improv classes, and while I mostly did it because it seemed like fun, one benefit was that it helped me professionally. Here’s how:
Building Listening Skills: Other than “yes, and…” and “don’t try to be funny,” a note you hear over and over again in improv is, simply, “listen.” All too often we jump on stage and try to ram our ideas down our scene partner’s throat, without listening to the ideas, suggestions, or help they are providing. By taking a step back and listening to what they’re saying, we open up the possibilities for new, exciting things to occur. The same can be applied professionally. Whether you are in a large meeting or a one-on-one, listening is key. Leaving our preconceptions at the door and being open to others’ suggestions or ideas can bring about efficiencies, changes, or new ways of doing business that we had not yet thought of.
Openly Receiving Feedback: I wouldn’t say I was the type of person who didn’t like receiving feedback, but it certainly has become much easier since doing improv. When you say something onstage that doesn’t land and is met with complete silence from the audience, the feedback is clear. And feedback from a coach or teacher is just as important because hearing why something did or did not work onstage can be a lesson for you to apply in the future. What’s key is remembering that most feedback, while sometimes hard to hear, is not an attack on you personally. At work, receiving and assessing upward, downward, or lateral feedback can take you far.
Being More Confident: Improv is all about making bold choices. Oftentimes, we go out on stage with the great idea of, for example, playing a Frenchman. Except once we start talking, we realize our French accent is awful and we worry people won’t think we’re funny because of it. We start to backpedal or shrink onstage and the audience sees it. It’s the improv equivalent of being indecisive at work, apologizing for something that needs no apology, or being hesitant to suggest an alternative solution. The audience, like your supervisors or colleagues, responds to confidence. Be confident in your decisions and dealings at work—it will help instill confidence in others and minimize uncertainty.
It can be a balancing act—how can I be confident while listening to others’ ideas and being open to receive feedback—which is part of why improv is so challenging (and fun)! The same can be said for work; applying a few improv lessons to your professional life can help you grow and make work more enjoyable and productive.
About the Author: Sarah Walsh has nearly a decade of communications experience, including public sector roles in the California State Senate and State Assembly, as well as private sector roles for a sovereign Native American tribe and a global pharmaceutical company. In addition to communications work, Sarah and her husband are team captains and fundraisers for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s annual Walk MS event. When she’s not writing, editing, or soliciting her friends and family for MS Walk donations, she loves performing improv, hanging out with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, and cooking. Follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahsykeswalsh.
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