Improv Lesson: Make the Other Person Look Good

My improv group had a pre-show chant we would do every time right before taking the stage. The person leading would yell, “what are we going to do?” Everyone else would respond, “Have fun!” The leader would then say, “What else are we going to do?” to which everyone would yell back, “make each other look good!”

It was our way of reminding ourselves right before going on stage what the two most important factors were in having a great show: having fun, and helping each other out.

Having fun should be pretty obvious (if it’s not I’ll write more on it later!), so for now I want to focus on the second part, “making each other look good.”

An improv comedy show can be a nerve wracking affair. You don’t know what the audience is going to be like or say, you don’t know what your fellow performers will do or say, and you don’t even know what you will say! It is very easy to get stressed out or focus overly hard on yourself.

The best improv happens when people put aside those nerves and simply focus on helping each other. If you make an offer, I am going to accept and build on it. If you are taking the scene somewhere, I am going to support and go with you. If you are struggling, I will help you out and pick up the slack.

This doesn’t mean you never get to lead or make jokes or get laughs. With experience, you are able to do all this while supporting the other people on stage. Also, when everyone in the group adopts this mind set, then everyone sets everyone else up. That is a beautiful thing…

Could you imagine what things would be like if you and everyone around you (at work, at home, at your volunteer association, etc) adopted this mentality? If one everyone’s primary goals was to have fun and make each other look good? Would that make things more fun, more productive, and more successful? I would think so!

Give this a try. Go about the world seeing what you can do to have and make others look good. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results you see.

Improv Lessons: Don’t Fight Fire With Fire

There’s an old saying to “fight fire with fire.” Nice idea with some occasionally correct applications, but usually it just amounts to “stooping to the other person’s level” and accomplishes nothing…

Once in a rare while, two performers will have a problem that manifests mid-scene. This is bad, because in order to do a successful improv scene, the performers really need to work together and support each other. When they breakdown mid-scene during a live performance, it’s not a pretty thing to see. To an audience member, it might not be immediately obvious what exactly is happening. They just might feel that something is wrong.

What often happens is that in the middle of a scene, one performer does some “bad” improv. This annoys the other performer, so they respond with some bad improv of their own. This solves nothing and only serves to escalate the problem. The scene continues with the two people not working together, not happy, and not doing anything good at all. At this point there is nothing left to do but end the scene as quickly as possible.

Even though this does happen, it’s really kind of a stupid problem. This is improv comedy we’re talking about! There’s nothing really at stake other than a good show.

And yet people often let their egos get in the way of their success. Sure, the first performer did something wrong. But then the second performer, out of annoyance, ego, or a desire to “punish,” responded in a poor way. And it is this second performer I want you to think about…

How many times does someone do something wrong to you, and you feel justified, if not compelled, to respond in kind? This doesn’t work in improv, and it doesn’t work away from improv. All you get when you fight fire with fire is a much bigger fire that hurts everyone.

There is a time, place, and method to dealing with problems. That time is occasionally right now, the place is rarely “right here in front of customers or observers,” and the method is pretty much never to respond with the same problematic behavior. Instead, take the person aside and address the issue calmly and rationally. If they did something “bad,” let them know without emotion or anger. Try to fix the problem, not punish the person.

Do this, and your life will be much easier and more successful.

Improv Lessons: Be Willing to Fail

Let’s face it: failure stinks! Nobody likes to fail, and failure is very rarely rewarded. And yet, if you are unwilling to fail then you may never ever really succeed.

Improv comedy is an art form that is wrought with the potential for failure. Every time you take the stage, you have no idea what to expect. You don’t know what kind of suggestions the audience will give you. You don’t know what your partners are going to do or say next. Heck, if you’re doing it right, you don’t know what you are going to do or say next.

With all that uncertainty, it is easy to get stressed out and get overwhelmed by the fear of failure. Novice improvisers often let this fear get the better of them. Even experienced improvisers sometimes spend too much time being afraid of failure.

In my experience, the best improvisers are those who realize that every time they take the stage they might mess up (maybe even mess up big) but then let that fear go. They’re willing to take risks and do their best, and if they fail they simply get up, brush themselves off, and try again.

When you accept the very real possibility of failure, you release yourself from the chains that fear puts on you. Ironically, once you let go of that fear, you are able to perform much more naturally and relaxed, and your chances of success actually go up.

The same principle applies off-stage. If you are speaking, you need to let go of the fear of failure before you take the stage. If you are about to go on an important sales call, remind yourself that if it doesn’t work out it’s not the end of the world and you’ll move on. Whatever is making you nervous, simply tell yourself, “I’m going to do my best, and if I mess up I’ll figure it out and move on.”

This is not to say that failure is ok. Failure can have real consequences – financial, physical, relationship, etc. However, once you are committed to a course of action, worrying about failure will accomplish nothing other than make you more likely to fail.

There’s an old saying, “what we resist, persists.” Once you accept what you are resisting, it loses its hold over you and washes away. Whether you are about to do an improv performance, give a speech, go on a sales call, or have a difficult conversation, accept the possibility you might mess up, let it go, and then go out and do your best.

Improv Lessons: Pay Attention!

One of the most basic principles to great improvisation, on stage or off, is to simply pay attention! Even though it is simple, it is so hard for people to grasp.

In an improv comedy sense, paying attention means listening – and fully hearing – what your fellow performers are saying and doing, observing the audience’s reactions, and being aware of the environment and reality you are creating on stage. Most new improvisers (and, sadly, many experienced ones) pay attention to only one thing: their own thoughts!
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Career Advice from the World of Improv Comedy!

Recently, MSN.com posted an article by CareerBuilder.com editor, Kate Lorenz, titled, “10 Hangups That Cripple Workers.” What struck me as interesting is that every single one of these “career hangups” can be addressed by simply using basic principles from improvisational comedy. Of course I see the entire world through the filter of improv comedy! However, in this case, I’m pretty sure I’m right. Take a look at the ten hangups below, along with my “improv solution,” and see if you agree.

For each point, I’ve listed an improv game or exercise that directly addresses the issue. (Note: You can see examples of the games on the video page)

Here are the 10 “Hangups”:

1. Wallowing in the Past

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Applying Improv Comedy Principles to Business

Improv comedy is a form of theater where a group of performers take the stage with nothing prepared in advance and use audience suggestions to instantly create comedy. If you’ve ever seen the TV show, ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ you’ve seen improv comedy. Improv is fast, funny, and quite often ridiculous.

The first reaction people have to hearing about improv comedy being applies to business is, ‘Come on now, business is serious. How can improv comedy apply to that?’

Well, the answer is quite simple. The key to successful improv is the willingness to take risks, the understanding of how to tap into your own creative resources, and the ability to listen to and work well with other people. Show me a person in business who couldn’t benefit from having the willingness to take risks, the ability to tap into their creativity, and the skill to listen and work with others.
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