We’re All Improv Actors Now

May 30, 2020

Originally published May 21, 2020 on Forbes

by Doug Sundheim

Leading in the current environment is stressful. Every day leaders are assessing and reacting to shifting realities. On good days, things click. On bad days, things fall apart. There is no way to remove the inherent anxiety amidst all the uncertainty. However, there are ways to roll with it, and use it to your advantage.

Enter improvisational acting training.

At its core, improvisational acting (improv) is about taking what you are given and making the most of it. It’s a useful skill in any circumstance, but it’s particularly helpful during times of upheaval and change.

Many people find improv terrifying. Actors are in front of an audience, with no preparation, performing a scene based on an idea that was just thrown at them, all the while trying to be entertaining. Successful improv is awe-inspiring to watch. (For good improv, check out the new Netflix series Middleditch & Schwartz)

But what seems like spur-of-the-moment magic has a simple, elegant underlying structure. And it’s a structure that anyone can learn. Doing improv takes practice and courage, but less than you might think. And once you get good at it, you’ll find it’s invaluable training for leadership.

I first tried improv twelve years ago after losing a bet. Entering the theater, my fear of making a fool of myself was in high gear. After warm-up exercises and cursory guidance, I jumped into a scene with seasoned actors. When the dialogue turned to me, I blurted out that I wanted to play baseball. However, at that point in the evolving scene, we were on a plane flying from Miami to New York: Suddenly my fear of making a fool of myself was realized. Without skipping a beat, another actor got his imaginary baseball gear out of the overhead compartment and the group played a few innings between passengers on the plane. It ended up being funny.

The takeaway? My screw up worked to our advantage. Rather than ruin the scene, it made it entertaining and memorable.

I recently dissected this scene with improv acting coach Scotty Watson, who shared the essence of great improv and why its lessons are so important right now.

“Most people don’t see what’s going on around them,” Watson said. “Stuck in their own heads, they miss the moment. In improv, we call this missing the “offer.” When you miss offers, things break down. Consider your airplane scene. Your desire to play baseball was the offer. Another actor took it and built on it, which is what made the scene work. That actor said yes. If he had rejected your offer, it would have stopped the scene dead in its tracks. Improv is about taking the situation that’s handed to you and saying yes and then building on it. This is exactly what leaders need to do in the current moment. Denying reality never works.”

Scotty shared four key improv lessons that leaders can use right now.

Live in observation

Keen observation is the foundation of all great improv and leadership. Observe everything. Keep your eyes open for new data and information. It sounds simple, but it can be tricky. Given our personal histories and experience, we’re all primed to see some things and miss others. We accept this piece of data but reject that one. The advice is to see and accept everything. It may not be something you would have chosen, but it’s here and it’s reality. Being firmly grounded in the reality of the moment gives you power.

Accept and build (Yes, and…)

Once you accept reality, you can do something with it. You can forward the action and build momentum. In improv this is called “yes and.” It creates inclusive and collaborative energy. You’re saying, “Yes I see that…and here is a thought to build on it.” The kiss of death in improv is the word “no” because it stops action. It’s the same thing on a leadership team. Every offer, even if you disagree with it, has the potential to forward action. When you disagree, you have two options. You can say, “No, you’re wrong and here’s why,” or “Yes, I see where you’re coming from and here’s a suggestion to build on it.” The former is a battle of ideas which stops action and saps energy. The latter builds ideas that generate movement and create energy.

Make active and positive choices

A fundamental belief in improv is that when you do things in good faith and to the best of your abilities, no matter what happens, good will come from it. When you’re moving with positive intent, even if it’s in the wrong direction, you can course correct. When you’re not moving, you can’t course correct because you’re not on a course. In leadership, like improv, the key is to get into action.

Don’t be afraid to mess up

In improv, mess ups are the foundation of some of the best scenes. Watson likes to tell the story of improv legend Adrian Truss mistakenly saying, “no” and then having to dig himself out of it. “It created something hilarious, memorable, and more interesting,” Watson recalled. “It woke everyone up.” Similarly, leaders shouldn’t be afraid to mess up right now. The world is in upheaval. No one knows exactly what they’re doing and as a result, no one is expecting perfection. People are just expecting active and positive choices to create forward momentum.

In true improv fashion, Watson has followed his own advice by accepting the “offer” of the moment and making a positive and active choice. He’d never been on Zoom before March 2020, but is now using the platform to deliver his improv classes online six days a week and is finding success. It’s not surprising—after all, improv actors are the quintessential “pivoters.”

Leading, like improv, is about movement. Just do something. Stay present to what is unfolding around you. Make one choice after another. Who knows, a crazy idea just might end up being your best.