Zip Zap Job: Using Improv Skills to Succeed in the Workplace

Stephen C. James

Stephen C. James is a teacher at Second City Hollywood, and since 2003, he has been running the drama program at an LA-area middle school. He performs improv, sketch, and stand-up in the Los Angeles area, most often with Nerdvana, a two person sketch/improv group.

Stephen C. James is a teacher at Second City Hollywood, and since 2003, he has been running the drama program at an LA-area middle school. He performs improv, sketch, and stand-up in the Los Angeles area, most often with Nerdvana, a two person sketch/improv group.

I’ve been performing and teaching improv for a decade. There’s a thing you learn pretty early on in the world of improvisation: there is little to no money in improv itself. At any one time there are 11 paying improv gigs in America (that’s an exaggeration; I think we’re up to 12), but ultimately that doesn’t matter. There’s so much more that you get out of improvisational acting… like the willingness to be supportive of others’ success, an ability to see from another’s perspective, and the skill of creating in the moment to name just a few. While Improvisation Inc. may not be hiring, the major tenets of improv can both make the job you have more bearable and make you more desirable as a job candidate.

Listen to Your Partner
For those of you who may not be familiar with improvisational acting, it is a performance art where the actors make up the scene as they go. It relies heavily on simply listening to your scene partner. When you are improvising, the idea is that with one idea at a time, you are building this scene, an interaction that has never existed before and will never exist again. I challenge you to use the idea of “close listening and responding to the last thing said” from the world of improv in your workplace. We can easily switch our ears to autopilot at work. The idea that everything said by a person in an interview, meeting, or interaction could be a jumping off point to a string of brilliant ideas can not only make you more receptive to new strategies, but can train you to become more engaged in interactions with coworkers.

Yes, And…
One of the first things they train you to do in the world of improv is to say “yes, and…” The idea of “yes, and…” is the underpinning for most of the work done on stage, because it allows you to agree with your scene partner while adding your own information and ideas to strengthen what they’ve just said. At a job, this “yes and-ing” prevents you from being the person who always shoots down the ideas of others, while still allowing your voice to be heard and your ideas to be presented. I always tell performers that I coach that yes is a quicker way to getting to something important. That includes responding to challenges with “yes, and” as well. When you have a chance to take on an ambitious new project, be willing to say yes and stretch your abilities.

There’s No “Me” in Improv
If an all-staff morning meeting was a drinking game, the person who got the phrase “team player” would be dead of alcohol poisoning before 10 AM. Being a team player is, yes, important, but in improv we call it making everyone else look good. If you let yourself trust the people you work with to have your back, and you spend your time making the rest of the group look good, helping out when and where you can, it improves your standing and the workplace for everyone else. Good improv is dependent on every player supporting each other on stage. You let go of ego and try to make the finished product the best it can be. Once “me” becomes “we,” the focus shifts to the work instead of the worker. This approach makes you someone that everyone wants as part of the group.

Serious Fun
When my best friend lured me into the world of improv, he described it as serious fun. It, like work, is serious. There are rules, goals, striving, failing, and small moments of personal triumph that will warm you for weeks. But it is also fun. Approach your work with a sense of levity. This doesn’t mean you are the guy trying to crack up the room at every office birthday; in improv it’s not about the jokes. The fun comes from the joy felt in the moment and in being focused on that present moment. Be aware that even the most serious job can have a sense of play; be the person willing to bring that out in others.

I recommend you take an improv class. Granted this is akin to the guy at the bakery telling you all of the gluten stuff is hokum; I admit to having a vested interest. But I firmly believe that the things taught in improv make better people. Improvisers listen, they encourage, they adapt, they react honestly, they refuse to give up in the face of incredible odds. Improvisers are problem solvers. Improvisers work hard because they want to get better. If you work like an improviser, I can’t promise you riches, but I can promise you’ll start seeing opportunities where before you saw none. Just start with yes. And…

Stephen C. James

Stephen C. James is a teacher at Second City Hollywood, and since 2003, he has been running the drama program at an LA-area middle school. He performs improv, sketch, and stand-up in the Los Angeles area, most often with Nerdvana, a two person sketch/improv group.

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