Improv Isn’t Just for Comedy

Nervous before that big agency pitch? Tongue-tied when you run into your boss’ boss in the elevator, who asks you what you are working on? See a coworker steal the credit for your idea because they present better?

That can be many of us in the marketing world. In an industry where things can change on a dime, knowing how to react in the moment can be an invaluable skill. Is that something that can be taught? Is it a skill that can be acquired?

If you ask Dr. Paul Zuckerman, the answer is an unqualified yes. He’s been teaching it in corporate settings and workshops for years. With more than 25 years in market research, mainly in the agency and on the qualitative side, Dr. Zuckerman uses his background in psychology (he has a doctorate in human behavior from the University of Michigan) to teach and coach business people. His methodology is slightly unorthodox but extremely effective.

How does he do this? What’s his secret sauce?

Improv. Or, more precisely improvisational techniques that the pros use.

In other words, improv is not just for comedy anymore. It’s for business leaders, managers, people who work in groups, teams that need to get to know each other, and disparate divisions of a company learning to work together. In other words, it’s for all of us.

Under the auspices of Chicago City Limits (CCL), one of New York’s top and long-running improv troupes, Dr. Zuckerman runs the “Improv for Business Professionals” (I4B) seminars, which include ongoing classes at CCL, on-site corporate training, and teambuilding activities. He is a founding member of CLL and currently serves as executive producer and artistic director.

As Dr. Zuckerman describes it, I4B “provides students with tangible skills for success in a business environment. The class focuses on key techniques used by improvisers to generate ideas, organize them, and present them in a cogent, compelling manner, along with ways to optimize working in a group. The class is engaging, informative, and fun.”

These classes specifically for business professionals and use real-life scenarios as training tools. A sampling of recent participants included an art director at an agency, a market researcher, a professor, a chief operating officer (COO), an executive assistant at an ad agency, a documentary filmmaker, a private equity guy, a lawyer, and an ex-military intelligence strategist. Not an actor or a comedian in the bunch.

One such recent participant was Kathy Newberger, director of branded engagement at Delivery Agent (the television advertising and e-commerce company behind the H&M shopping-enabled commercial during the Super Bowl this year), who explained how a recent improv class improved her skills:

“I’m a confident presenter generally, but with complex ideas to explain, sometimes I tend to speed through explanations. Last week, with I4B fresh on my mind, I caught myself speeding up during an important presentation. So I imagined myself in front of the classroom, paused for a breath, and then proceeded calmly and confidently – and now the agency I was presenting to is a step closer to working with me.”

Seldom in today’s workplace can we receive unbiased feedback, without having to worry about the other person’s agenda. At CCL, the emphasis is on improving your skills – there’s no right, no wrong, just improving yourself and your skills. You learn to work with people, accept them for who they are – warts and all – and how to move past that to a productive working relationship. As a manager of a disparate team, I can see the value of harnessing that energy to pull in one direction.

Talking about listening skills seems trite these days. Improv trains you to hear the nuances, to actively engage, to read body language and non-verbal cues. It’s these everyday skills that can make each of us a better communicator in the business settings, whether one on one, a committee, or presenting to your potential client.

One other takeaway was about accepting ourselves, how to cut through the self-talk, the little things that run through all our minds that can bring you down. It’s helpful for all of us to pull back from the second guessing, the editorializing. Saying it is one thing – doing it is much harder.

I was impressed that such things can be taught, and to see the students progressing in their presentation skills. This class won’t give you the idea for your game-changing innovation or the brainstorm that will get you that promotion. It will provide you with confidence and a safe place to make mistakes, with feedback and constructive criticism.

Improv is not just for comedy anymore – it’s for business.

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