Improv

Hysterical laughter erupts post scene – two students created a picnic moment that turned into a horror movie with a cult leader that believed ants were Gods. I was even in tears, laughing so hard my stomach ached – and truthfully, I can’t remember a time I laughed so hard before or since. The best part? These folks weren’t actors or comedians – they were entrepreneurs, in all different stages of their business from startup and ideation to folks who have been in business for 10+ years.

All of the entrepreneurs were taking this improv class to make them better at running their business – and for good reason! Aside from improv being the best boot camp in listening and interpersonal communication skills, five major improv rules are used daily by entrepreneurs.

  1. Say YES!

    Denial is death to improv. When you say no to a reality, an offering, a suggestion or idea in improv, you’ve killed the scene and the moment. Negation is the first thing you’re taught to avoid. While you’re not saying YES to being a doormat – you are saying yes to the possibilities.

    When you start a new business or want to grow, you have to say yes. If you’re constantly making excuses and saying “no that won’t work” or “no we can’t do that” or “no, that’s not the way we work” you’re shutting down possibilities. Business 101: stay open to possibilities when you’re growing!

  2. Make Statements, Mind Your Questions

    Questions pass the buck. If you’re asking questions in improv, you’re confused: you might not know where something is going! Makes sense in real life, right? Ask a question and you can get answers from the people around you. Full stop: you’re passing the buck to the other people when you ask a question. When you make a statement, you’re not only taking initiative in a conversation, you’re also adding to it, and pulling your weight.

    In business, there is a time and a place for questions and a time and place for declarative statements – and if you’re managing a team or making big choices (even smaller ones!) you have to take some initiative! The responsibilities around making choices for your business need to fall on you – sure, you can get help from folks, but in the end, a LOT of those decisions have to come from you.

  3. Be Real, Not Funny

    Probably one of the biggest misconceptions is that improv makes you funny. Nope, not one bit – when you try to be funny, you’re not, unless you ARE FUNNY. It’s pretty awful when someone who isn’t funny tries to be funny or tells jokes, but doesn’t understand comedic timing. What makes improv funny is the truth – when people are real, living the reality they create, THAT is funny. Not bad comedic timing – reality, and heightened reality at that is hysterical when you’re watching.

    Fake and inauthentic entrepreneurs are, for lack of a better word, gross. You’ve read their posts, heard their talks and been bothered by their social media campaigns – probably all while saying “how are they still in business?!” When you’re running a business, your clients will be able to tell if you’re being real or pretending. And fake it till you make it can only get you so far.

  4. Fail Freely

    When I was an improv performer, I performed off-Broadway. Know what one of the worst feelings in the world? Bombing in front of a full house. I still remember when I was running in as the ref of a competitive improv night and I tripped UP the stage. I didn’t fall down, I fell up.

    And I can tell you after that night, I never once bit it jumping up on stage again.

    Improv is best when people fail freely – you risk it all for the moment, and maybe it works, and maybe it bombs and you trip up the stage. You’ll never do it again.

    The best entrepreneurs are the ones that risk failure: starting a business is a risk! You might lose time, money, friends – and you might gain everything by risking that failure. Even if you only lose face, it’s more than many people risk. The status quo? Not for you.

  5. Follow the Fear

    Quite literally, the phrase “Follow the Fear” comes from the great improv teacher Del Close. In improv, victory is on the other side of what makes you uncomfortable. That thing that scares you? Probably where the funny lies.

In entrepreneurship, things are going to scare you – from going full time to scaling up to hiring someone. Victory is on the other side of what makes you uncomfortable. That thing that scares you? Probably where your version of success lies.

Are you ready? I’ve already had my first pumpkin drink (cold brew, because it’s still in the 90s here in North Carolina) and my first roasted squash. Two indicators that lead to fall, leaves, adventures – and holiday parties, dinners and family time.

Did I panic you yet?

Before you start chugging pumpkin spice lattes in prep of conversations with your Uncle Brad about politics, take a deep breath and keep reading. We’re digging into interpersonal communication skills just in time for the holidays so YOU have plenty of time to prep and practice.

What Is Interpersonal Communication?

If you’ve read my writing before, you’ll know that I’m quick to mention that improv is quite simply listening and responding to the world around you. Interpersonal communication is similar and requires listening and responding skills, which is why improv is a great lens to peer through when leveling up your capabilities. Simply put: interpersonal communication skills are skills needed to communicate verbally and nonverbally. Interpersonal communication is the exchange of information between two or more people.

It’s the interaction between people. You might be thinking, that…that’s all it is? Yup! So at this point today, you’ve probably interacted with a few people (or a lot, depending on your job and the day of the week!) These interactions probably went from fine and unmemorable to great to terrible – and everything in between.

Practice in improv is practice in interpersonal skills because you are exchanging information, sometimes off the wall information, with another person/other people.

So…just talking, yeah?
Sometimes I wish that interpersonal communication was just what we say and not how we said it.

Interpersonal communication encompasses verbal, non-verbal and written communication. It’s not just what you’re saying, it’s also how you say it – tone, cadence, emotional emphasis and how you are standing, making eye contact even your gestures all tell a story and contribute to what you’re saying.

Written communication falls under interpersonal communication: it’s a bit harder to check in with your tone on an email, yet we know the underlying snark in “per my last email” and can practically feel the enthusiasm in exclamation point land.

Think about the last conversation you had when the speaker was nervous or excited – how did you feel? Nervous or excited? We get the energy we put out. If you’re feeling apprehensive chatting with someone, chances are they also feel apprehensive around you!

We’re going to get into the ideas around reflection and checking in – take a moment now to think about how you stood when you had your last conversation. How about the tone of your voice, your cadence, if you were speaking in an assertive or a passive style? Where were your arms, did you make eye contact, how close (or far) were you to the person you were talking to? All of this matters!

Who cares?
We spend SO much time communicating. Between work, our home lives, social situations – chances are you communicate a lot. Misunderstanding often leads to conflict which leads to not-great-feels about how we communicate. This is what we hear A LOT of in our classes: everything from “I just don’t communicate well” to “I struggle with being myself” to “no one gets me” to “I’m being held back by my communication style.” And it’s true – especially the last one – if you don’t know how to communicate authentically as yourself, and well, you’re going to be held back. That’s not to say everyone is going to like you, or that you’ll be voted “Best Communicator Of The Year” in your office. You will find if you communicate in a clear and concise manner, you’ll have far more time (because you’re not dealing with misunderstandings) and you’ll have far fewer misunderstandings (and save that sweet, sweet time.)

How can I be more effective?
We are such big fans of going back to the basics when we’re building interpersonal skills, and it all revolves around one big idea: be present.

You cannot, I repeat, you cannot be an effective communicator when you’re thinking about three things from yesterday and four more for tomorrow. Ever see a terrible comedy show, or watch people not listen or pay attention to one another because they are so deadset on their agenda? Not effective communication.

Improv is so helpful in these situations because in real life you can spend a lot of time coasting along. We’ve all been in conversations where we know the other person is completely checked out. What did you do? Call them out, or just keep talking?

Generally, we just keep talking! I can’t tell you how many dinners and parties I’ve been to where I can tell the person I’m talking to isn’t paying a lick of attention to me, and I just keep talking.

In improv, you call them out.

Not in the moment! You can see it because it’s an exhibitionist activity. Generally, you have a group of people that are watching you communicate, and good classes should have reflection built-in: how did it go, what worked, what didn’t, what can we do better next time.

Being present is EXHAUSTING, so no worries if you feel tired just reading this. Here are a few situations you can work on your presence and attention – and keep in mind, you can’t control how someone else communicates, just how you respond to it!

Situation: Work function

We’ve all been there: work dinner or party, networking event or even a meeting. And you start thinking about everything else, except for the person in front of you talking…and you realize they are starting to notice and oh god, they are staring.

What do you do?

Well, first: try to pay attention when someone is talking to you. Work those active listening skills and skip the smile and nod that we default to. Take a moment to think of a question you can ask the speaker – maybe something that gets them to dig into what they are talking about a bit more or something you’re curious about. Try to make it an open-ended question: one that seeks for more information, versus a closed-ended question: one that can be answered with a yes or no.

Situation: Family dinner

You know the Biden-Bernie-Impeachment-Ukraine-Cougar-Harris conversation will happen. You know it. So what do you do when you’re having an argument that makes you want to cringe or leave or head right to your childhood room and hide?

Try to Yes, And a different opinion. Take a moment, and confirm what they said, affirm it, and add your opinion. For example:

Uncle Brad: This is all fake news!
You: Yes, Uncle Brad, you think this is all fake news, and I think asking another country to investigate an opponent is wrong. Let’s have more pie!

By affirming what the other person is saying and ADDING your opinion with an AND versus a BUT, you’re not only showing them that yes, you are listening, you’re also not interested in a fight. AND is the great equalizer: why not show that your opinions are equal? All the word BUT does is pit two opinions against one another and call in conflict. Remember: disagreements will happen, disrespect is optional.

Situation: First Date

Don’t go on first dates in the holiday season.

Kidding but not kidding! Everyone is a little stressed during this time of year, and hopefully, you’re not looking for a date for your work slash family party. If you ARE dating during this jolly time of year, use one of our favorites to warm up so you’re not tripping over your words: tongue twisters! Try saying these slow and be sure to over enunciate to warm up your mouth!

Red leather, yellow leather
Irish Wrist Watch
The lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue, the tip of the tongue, the teeth, the lips.

Say these slowly and deliberately!

Start slow when you’re building interpersonal skills, and keep your eyes out here for more tips and tricks to get you to your potential!

Imposter Syndrome is a THING. That little voice that says, “You’re a fraud! No one is going to believe you! You don’t know what you’re doing!” isn’t something that you’re dealing with yourself. Research shows up to 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome in their life…70%!

You’re not alone.

Couple imposter syndrome with issues like the confidence gap, fears of public speaking and the leadership gap, and you have a perfect storm of what it feels like to woman. You don’t often get second chances at life or work situations, so what better way to “practice” that confidence than with improv? Here are three ways that improv for women makes magic happen:

Experimenting with Space

I firmly believe that space equals confidence. But what space do you want? Women take space differently than men, and when you’re working out what kind of space is YOURS, you don’t want to be influenced by another person who views space differently. Improv is all about experimenting: whether you want to practice an assertive speaking style or taking initiative, you’ve got a safe space with your fellow woman.

Collective Battles

You know who knows what it’s like to be a woman? Other women. When you’re in a space with other women, it feels a little easier to talk about things you’re dealing with in your personal and professional life. Couple that comfort with the team vibes and YES AND of improv and you’ve got a massive juggernaut of power to conquer those gaps and issue that women face every day.

Confidence Looks Like…

Confidence looks different on every single woman. It might look outgoing and assertive or powerful and soft-spoken – or even somewhere in between. When you’re in “real life” it’s hard to see what works and what doesn’t because you (should be!) busy living in the moment and the here and now. In improv, you can be in the here and now AND have the reflective aspect of the group helping you find your confidence – and a great group to bounce your ideas around.

Improv and teambuilding is hardly innovative: traditional icebreakers that usually embarrass more than they break ice are usually based in some improv slash drinking game. Since the 90s are long gone, improv for teambuilding should go the way of over plucked brows and butterfly clips – out.

Improv can do so much more for businesses than break the ice. Here are five reasons businesses are turning to improv for professional development:

  1. Interpersonal Communication Skills

    Folks in the office not communicating as well as they should? Improv might be the cure: not only do you practice specific skills like active listening, responding and conversation, it fine tunes your personal style. You get to practice interactions and moments without repercussion: when in life do you get the possibility of a do over like you do in an improv workshop?

  2. Public Speaking, Presentation and Pitch

    Improv is heightened reality: everything exists at a higher state with higher stakes. What better way to practice the stressful act of public speaking and pitching than in with the playful activities of improv? Not only do you get to rehearse, which is more than most people do before they speak (we see you!) you’ll be able to find nuances that you never knew existed. Sure, you’re not going to pitch like you’re in a western, but what if practicing like you’re in a western helps you slow down when you are explaining something?

  3. Feedback – Giving and Getting

    Reflective practice is imperative to a healthy company culture. How do you help people feel comfortable giving feedback when they are nervous about giving feedback? Improv involves group and partner activities and giving feedback should be part of every activity. We like to do Glows and Grows: what are you doing well, and what needs work?

  4. Conflict Resolution and Customer Service

    Yes, And is the magic conflict resolution phrase. Affirm what the person who is upset is saying – YES, I hear that you’re unhappy, YES, that flight was very delayed, YES, those nacho fries were cold – and then add to the conversation – AND I want to help you, AND can I offer you a voucher, AND, here’s a free order. Most of the time someone is upset, they want to be heard and not argued with – and most of the time when someone is upset, we say the dreaded word BUT: a confrontation building conjunction.

  5. Confidence

    “Follow the Fear” is a BIG improv principle – greatness lives on the other side of fear! Improv builds confidence not only by embodying a “go for it” attitude, it helps you think about what risk ACTUALLY is – is making a mistake or looking foolish going to end your life and career? Probably not, so why not suck it up and just go for it? Most people are too afraid – you’ll immediately look, and feel more confident!

by Engager Olive Persimmon

“I work in a male-dominant industry and sometimes in meetings they talk over me. I have to fight to get my ideas heard,” a vice-president at a large bank said to me.

“When I don’t say anything, they tell me I ‘need to be more assertive’ and when I’m assertive, they tell me I’m being too aggressive or bitchy.”

“Some of the other women I work with are catty, they try to put me down to make themselves look good.”

“My boss told me to smile more. Another colleague said I need to smile less because people might think I’m being flirtatious. Now I’m obsessively thinking about if I’m smiling at the right times.”

These are all comments I heard while teaching a women’s program for a client in the finance industry. Unfortunately, comments like this come up all the time. I wish I could say these were anomalies but I’ve taught women’s programs for three years and I keep hearing the same responses. Again and again. Women who are taught to play small. Women who feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions. Women worried about being too much of something (too assertive, too passive, too tall, too small, too whatever…)

One of my most memorable comments came from a younger professional named Chelsea, “I’m 6’1 and my boss is intimidated by my height. He always makes snide comments about it. Is it okay to try to make myself smaller in his presence so he’s not as threatened?” For me, it was a heartbreaking comment because it represented how women are taught to shrink to accommodate.

I thought about my answer for a second because I knew what I was about to say would be important to Chelsea. I looked at her and carefully said, “No, it’s not okay to shrink. His insecurity is not your problem.”

Mic drop.

It’s been a huge part of my life’s work to help women find their voices and stop playing small. I am incredibly lucky to work for a company that supports this mission. The Engaging Educator was not only founded by a badass woman, it hosts a whole staff of amazingly talented women. As a testimony of our commitment, I received an email from my boss on November 9th, the day after we didn’t elect the first female president. She told us that we were going to give away some free seats in our women’s workshops. This was our way of contributing to all the women who felt powerless and defeated post-election.

I was so excited! Another Engager, Minna Taylor and I had been designing women’s programs for years. I planned an amazing curriculum with improv-based exercises for this new class. We’d work on taking up space and using the full force of our voices. We had exercises for dealing with aggressive counterparts, exercises that addressed thoughts & behaviors that were holding us back. I carefully crafted and designed this program thinking about all of the comments I had heard over the past several years. Then I waited.

No one signed up. Not one single woman. Even though many of the seats were 100% ABSOLUTELY FREE. Finally, deep in my despair, ONE lone, brave woman registered for the workshop.
I was beyond disappointed. I teach storytelling, public speaking, presentation skills, and improv for professionals. They ALWAYS have students. This absolutely free and critically important class failed to draw students.

Perhaps it was a marketing failure on our part, I don’t know. Maybe, it’s just one more example of women not putting themselves first because it seemed selfish or unimportant to take the time to learn how to be comfortable being a woman. Maybe there were good specials at the bar. Maybe the ladies were too busy running their own companies. I have no idea. Despite this, we’re still offering free spots in ALL of our classes for women because we believe it’s THAT important.

I went to the Women’s March in January and was so excited to see so many men and women coming together, actively. It was incredible to see people fighting for their rights and the rights of other people. I know that the fighting isn’t going to stop. We’re going to have to keep fighting the next four years and maybe eight years beyond that. Maybe fifteen years beyond that.

Give yourself some tools to help you fight. Come to class. Invest in yourself.

Women’s Classes (Free spots available to students in need or who work with/for women-focused organizations. Drop us a line for more info!):
– February 21st
March 23rd
April 4th

How to SHOW You Listen

by Founder Jen Oleniczak Brown

Man, listening is tough. When I set out to work on these videos, I shot them in one day, and immediately realized I had content for DAYS. In this installment, I’m focusing on one way to show you listen – and it isn’t immediately going into a personal story about the same topic (I’m looking at YOU, people that do this!)

Enjoy!

We’re back with another video tip – and this week, we’re starting a 4-part series on listening and conversation.

Check out how to start listening better. Hint: Stop thinking about dinner. =)

By Engager Hillary Murrell

When do we learn that failing is not an option?

This is a question that has been plaguing me over the last few years as a museum educator. I teach all grade levels in museums from kindergarten to senior adults.

Yesterday I toured a group of 3rd graders through the museum. In groups they looked at fiber art in the gallery and were able to touch the same object from the artist to Teen Facilitator web headerdiscover textures and process. They wrote down what they saw, what they thought and what that made them wonder. I am always amazed by the number of hands that go up in the air the minute I ask to share as a large group.

“I saw lots of colors”

“I think it looks like mushrooms, and I have lots of mushrooms in my backyard that my mom tells me not to eat”

“I think it looks like pixels on a blurry TV screen”

Their answers are inquisitive and they are genuinely willing and interested in sharing their thoughts. They don’t feel restricted to have to say the “correct” answer.

Contrast that with a group of undergraduates I toured last week. My assumption was that because they were Latin American Studies majors and the exhibition was on a Cuban artist we would have deep stimulating conversations in the galleries.

I open the tour with a question.

…..crickets….

Not one student was willing to talk through their thoughts or attempt to critically look and discuss a piece of art. I always joke with them that if the 3rd graders can 22727165146_fa61d9050c_oanswer questions, they definitely can. But really, it isn’t a joke and it makes me sad.

Why do we teach kids as they get older to stop exploring through conversation? There really is no wrong answer if you are able to back up your postulations through critical analysis. But all students hear is “keep your mouth shut so you don’t sound stupid.”

I think this is where Improv training can make a deep impact in how we educate. Improv skills help us learn that we are going to fail and when that happens we try again. There is no wrong answer in “yes…and”. It is about discovery and confidence and exploration to eventually get to a “correct” answer. I think we do students a disservice when we teach to tests and only “correct” answers when really the process of discovery, curiosity and failure is the greatest way to learn.

My goal as an educator in 2017 is to incorporate “yes…and” and confidence building in all my classes. I truly believe that teaching students (and adults!) how to fail is crucial in removing fear and opening a path to deeper learning that remains hidden when we teach that success is the only option.

Hi all, Jen here!

I know we said we’d move to bi-weekly videos in the new year for me to focus on writing, and in reality, I also wanted to up our tech game/quality of the videos before we moved forward.

Guess what? I have a motivated drive (duh) and a fantastic husband (also duh) and between the two, I ended up upping the tech game AND setting up the new studio in no time.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing! I’ll keep at it here, on guest blogs, LinkedIn and a super secret cool announcement coming soon. For now, enjoy our new trailer AND video today. In our video, we’re thinking about how to introduce yourself – because let’s admit it, it’s a difficult task. Enjoy the trailer and tips on introductions, and remember to YES AND today!

-Jen

How to Introduce Yourself!

By Engager Lawrese Brown

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop, “Improv For Job Seekers,” to a group of high school graduates. When preparing my curriculum, I thought carefully and critically about the skills that enable people to job hunt effectively, because those skills would direct the improv activities of the session.

arts-connection-teensMost students selected the session because “improv makes you quicker on your feet and that’s important when interviewing.” While communication skills are definitely a key piece of the job hunt, I also wanted students to enhance the less obvious, but no less important skills that would help them land a job. Skills like listening, creativity, attitude, collaboration and problem solving. This article highlights 3 key activities you can use to help your students hone these skills.

Activity #1: Last Word Response (Job Hunting Skill: Listening)

Instructions: “Who would say they are a good listener?” Most students did, and many nodded their heads in agreement. “This game Last Word Response, how well you listen from start to finish. In order to succeed at this game, you have to remain fully present because your sentence or phrase must start with the last word the person before you used.

For example, one student may start by saying a general phrase or sentence such as “I love cats,” the next person then starts their sentence with the last word of the previous person’s sentence and could say something like “Cats are cool pets,” the next person could say, “pets are named after people,” etc. Uh oh. For most of us – professionals young and mature – we’d make a case that listening is paying attention when someone else is speaking, but we’d also readily admit that while someone is speaking we are also thinking of what we want to say.

Takeaway: Sometimes we can get away with not listening until the very last word, yet other times (like when the hiring manager asks a two-part question in an interview – “What’s your greatest weakness? How have you been improving in that area?”) – it can cost you. The students – when they weren’t caught not listening – said it best, “when you actively listening its easier to make connections with the speaker,” and that’s critical when interviewing, networking and communicating.

Activity #2: Blind Line-Up (Job Hunting Skills: Creativity, Problem Solving)

These days’ companies want all their professionals to demonstrate creativity, because that quality is at the root of innovation. Companies want professionals who are going to push them to do things differently than they’ve done them before and that’s the exact purpose of the game, Blind Line-Up.

In this game, students are given three team tasks, such as lining-up in alphabetical order by first names, lining up by the #of minutes in their commute this a.m., or lining up in height order. Sounds easy right? The students are them prompted to complete the task in one of the three ways: with their eyes closed, no talking, or my favorite – with their eyes closed and no talking.

Takeaways: Many students incredulously inquired “how can we do this with our eyes closed?” All professionals can relate to feeling both confusion and resignation when faced with a new challenge or trying something for the first time. Yet, somehow – despite the uncertainty, lack of resources, stipulations, and roadblocks- we get it done, just as the students did. How? Because we tried, adjusted, and tried again. The students didn’t succeed at every task the first time, and that’s good because immediate success wasn’t the point. As students noted, “it was about finding new strategies,” “being resourceful” and ensuring “everyone was on the same page or using the same method to communicate.” The latter is what enables us to approach and solve problems in new ways.

Activity #3: Pass The Gesture (Job Skills: Collaboration, Attitude, Initiative)

Ask any high school student or professional about group projects and teamwork and there’s a collective sigh. Because of rough experiences, “some people are lazy and don’t do work,” “its easier by myself because I have high standards,” and “there can be a lot of miscommunication,” – many of us have decided that’s it better to execute any new project alone.

The only problem with that is everything about succeeding in a job has to do with how well you work with others. And that’s why being able to work in a team and being a good team player is important.

In the game, Pass The Gesture, each student says a word/phrase (ex. Yes, excellent, BAM, woo, etc.) and does an accompanying gesture (stomp your foot, snap your hands, spin, etc.). If student #1 starts by saying wow and throwing their hands up then each student in the circle has to do exactly that, say wow and throw their hands up, until we’re back at student #1. Student #2 then initiates a new, different gesture and word that everyone must repeat around the circle.

Takeaway: What inevitably happens is someone does a gesture that is too big, too much, too new and maybe even too complex (ex. Dougie, headstand, etc.) that other individuals shy away from fully attempting it. For example, instead of saying wow with the bright, confident tone of the student who started it, we let out an unenthusiastic, low “wow” or if we’re led to lift our hands way above our heads it’s tempting to lift them just above our shoulders.

hudson-river-museum-teens-1When these moments happen, I ask, “How much more confident do you feel as a leader when you know your team supports you?” Or “how much better is it working on a team when we know others are as fully committed to doing the tasks as well as we are?” Its those things – being able to rely on others and being fully committed to a common result that build trust. Also, how we approach something demonstrates our attitude and our attitude is critical to our success. Would you hire someone who complained whenever the company had to adjust or pivot on a project or would you hire the person who was enthusiastic and demonstrated a “can-do” attitude? As one student noted during their final reflection, “attitude is everything.”

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