Lessons from Improv (Foundation 1)

To Improvise I...

I recently completed an Improv Foundation 1 course at BATS by Rebecca Stockley. It was a fantastic experience I’d recommend for anyone. I want to take a moment and share some of the most important things that improv taught me. These are applicable to anything and everything we do in life.

  1. Make your partner look good – This is a change from being competitive; you must be supportive and understand that in supporting your partners (making them look good), you succeed as well. ‘If your partner likes working with you, then you’re on the right track.’
  2. Fail good-naturedly – This one is hard. The American education system teaches that failing is bad. Improv forces you to celebrate and accept your failures so that you can use them to move forward. There is no closing in on yourself when you fail; you must raise your arms and say “yes.” ‘When you fail, don’t punish yourself; celebrate the risk taking involved in failure.’
  3. Yes, and – We use this at Mozilla often. The idea is that saying no closes the dialogue and shuts off any potential to build something better. When you “yes, and” you are forced to find what you like in what someone offers and build upon it.
  4. Pay attention, Listen, Make eye contact – This is the only way collaboration works. Period.
  5. Body language has an impact – This is not news but when I was able to experientially understand it, it stuck with me. Whether or not you think your perception of people is influenced by their body language, their perception of you is. In the class we experimented with conveying character through body language. It said so much more and held more weight than words – we were surprised how much of a character we could convey. Imagine a frowning person telling you they feel happy, which indicator do you trust? There is an great TED talk by Amy Cudd about how body language shapes who you are.
  6. Don’t try to be original/clever – If are worried about looking good you will never have the space for good ideas to arise. It is better to accept your ideas, be obvious and work with what is there. The magic will follow.

I also learned about story spine. Originally created by Kenn Adams, the story spine is a way of understanding the narrative that stories tend to follow. Companies like Pixar use it. It helps us create stories. In short, ‘Once upon a time there was… Every day,… One day… Because of that,… Because of that,… Until finally… The moral…’ It’s important to understand and support that narrative; it defines a character.

Improv is a practice in accepting yourself, accepting others and building together. There is no one to impress and you must be ready to work with what comes your way regardless of if it is that you want.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo gave a commencement speech at University of Michigan where he talks about lessons he learned from improv. Definitely worth a watch. He mentions some of the above.

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