How to think on your feet: lead better with the secrets of improvised comedy

Written by Max Dickins Tuesday 27 October 2020
Check out this five-minute masterclass from one of the UK’s top comedy improvisers on how you can get in the moment
Microphone on a stool on a stage

As you might imagine, I get sceptical looks at first when I say that the skills of improvised comedy can make you a more effective leader. How can improv comedy be relevant in the often-staid environment of the office?

I explain that improvisation is about a lot more than comedy. Improvisation is the art of acting without script. And yes, this often happens on-stage for entertainment. But we are all tasked with improvising off-stage all of the time, too. We improvise when we collaborate to solve problems, we improvise when we respond to unexpected events. And isn’t almost all communication improvised? Far from being niche, it seems that improvisation might even be the essential skill of the modern workplace.


So, what secrets from improv can managers use to be better at their jobs? Here are the three commandments of improv:

1) It all begins with listening

This might seem counter-intuitive but, rather than focusing on what they want to say, first and foremost improvisers focus on listening attentively to their scene partner. For scene partner read colleague or client. If we want to connect with and to influence others, we need to meet them where they are. We cannot do this without listening brilliantly well. And this requires you to get out of your head and into the moment.

This is easier said than done, of course. Here’s a good test to apply: when someone is speaking, are you really taking in everything they are saying? Both the informational content and the emotional subtext? Or rather are you planning how you are going to respond? Writing the script in your head? Remember: listening is not waiting. It is active curiosity.

2) Think ‘Yes, and...’

The improv philosophy of ‘Yes, and’ is all about accepting and building on the ideas of our colleagues or clients. The opposite of saying ‘Yes, and’ is to say ‘Yes, but.’ When we say ‘Yes, but’ we block ideas, shooting them down or steamrollering them with our own. We do this often not because we are rude, but because we want to show leadership: to give others the benefit of our expertise and experience. In short, we consider criticising ideas as a generous act, a sign of robust thinking. And this sort of interrogation is often useful. The trouble comes when we default to that mode of communication when a ‘Yes, and’ response would be more productive.

Doing so brings real-world costs. By shutting down ideas we can create a culture where no-one wants to speak up. (This clearly isn’t productive at a time of constant change.) Also, by prematurely judging ideas, we might kill-off innovative suggestions that could provide real value with a little more development. Ask yourself, at a time where new approaches are essential, is your communication style making their creation more or less likely?

3) Everything is an offer

The potential we find in change is based on how we look at it. You are treating everything as an offer when you decide to frame anything that occurs in your environment-mistakes, problems, and curve balls-as serendipitous opportunities rather than frustrating challenges. Treating everything as offer is about asking, ‘What can I use here?’ rather than ‘What’s missing?’ This is especially important in a moment when we are all being asked to do more with less ingredients.

Cookery is an apt metaphor here. An average cook needs a finished recipe and a complete set of ingredients to create a delicious meal. A good cook can open the fridge, survey the leftovers, and create magic from whatever is there. The difference between the two is not skills, it is mindset. If you can learn to treat everything as an offer, to see possibility in the constraints, you’ll be able to see the opportunities amid the carnage.

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Max Dickins is a professional comedian and entrepreneur. He’s appeared on TV programmes such as Michael McIntyre’s Big Show. Off stage, he is director of improvisation training company Hoopla and has worked with managers from leading firms all over the world – Unilever, Google, Facebook and more – showing them how the skills of improvised comedy can make them more effective leaders.

Max’s new book Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work is out now.

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