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10 Unexpected Career Lessons I Learned from Improv

A vintage microphone.

Earlier this year, I had a sense that I needed to push myself past my comfort zone. Though my work responsibilities at the time were fulfilling, I still felt somewhat stagnant. The people I most admire—for their cultural contributions or career paths—took risks, and for the last few years I really hadn’t taken any.

It was obvious why: Risk involves vulnerability, temporary surrender of security, and openness to failure, the latter of which is especially uncomfortable. For me, fear of failure wasn’t just about avoiding a, “Wow, you blew it!” moment in front of others. This fear also kept me from pursuing some of my goals, dreams, and aspirations. That being said, I knew the only way to be less frightened by failing was to learn to fail. Knowing this, I enrolled in my first introductory improv course.

Admittedly, I am an extrovert, but beyond that I am none of the things you might associate with someone who takes improv. I am not a theatre kid, an aspiring actress, or a comedienne. Fortunately, more and more people are realizing that the principles of improv are great for all trades. For me, improv has made me more confident, alert, and authentic. Here are ten things I learned from improv and how I applied them to my career.

#1 Fail big and fail often

As the saying goes, 85% of improv is really bad. It’s awkward and it’s not funny, but it’s the 15% where the magic happens that keeps you hooked. There will be moments where you go blank, freeze, mispronounce, and make-up words, but the trick is to keep going.

Career Lesson: Failing or flopping isn’t the enormous set-back we imagine it to be. It’s our inability to move forward after failing that holds us back. Everyone messes up, but if you show that you’ve moved forward and that a mistake doesn’t bother/define you, then others will move forward, too.

#2 Yes…and

Improv is about accepting and building. If my partner says that I am a mother with a green child that rides the waves of forks and fantasy, then YES I am a mother with a green child that rides the waves of forks and fantasy AND I do this every weekend when my blue husband comes back from the bottom of the ocean.

Does anyone know exactly what this means? No, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are creating a reality based on a detail, contributing to the conversation, and inevitably being pushed outside of your comfort zone. Negation or saying “no” is a way to maintain control of the story. You won’t ever stretch your limits that way.

Career Lesson: Next time someone comes to you with an idea, remain open and accept it. Act as if it were true or possible and then add to it. Use the same principle the next time someone asks you to join them for an outing– say YES AND bring a friend or add a suggestion for an activity. Saying “yes” keeps us open to possibility and possibility pushes boundaries.

#3 No questions, please

Improv is a team sport. If you are asking a question then you are likely not contributing to the conversation or YES AND-ing (e.g. “How are you?” “What’s that?” “Is this here?” Think of how many empty questions you get asked in a day!). You are also placing the onus on the other person to do the work and fill in the information, which isn’t exactly fair. In improv every detail is a choice and avoiding committing to a choice, decision, or detail is playing it safe.

Career Lesson: Of course, even in improv there are exceptions (meaning good questions that move the conversation forward) but the idea readily translates to the workplace. No one expects you to know everything, but next time you want to ask a supervisor or colleague how to complete an assignment, outline what method, idea, or details you would use or suggest to complete the assignment instead. Doing so means you are being proactive, resourceful, and a thoughtful contributor to the conversation.

#4 Listen for the “gift”

Listening is everything in improv. You must pay attention to keep the story going. Missing details means minimizing details and that’s where a story comes undone. Listening also moves the focus from us to our partners. Instead of focusing on what you want to say next, we free ourselves to respond to what our partner says. That’s when you’ll receive gifts or offerings: Key details about your character or relationship that you can then build upon when it’s your time to contribute to the story.

Career Lesson: To most people, listening is just a practice in waiting for their turn to speak again, and that’s where we falter. There is precious detail in dialogue and when we hear all the details without rehearsing our own, we give more thoughtful, authentic, and active responses.

#5 Live for the moment

Relax, let go, and remain present. (Easier said than done, right?) In improv, you have to forget about preparing what you need to say or thinking of a funny line and just let it unfold as it comes to you. If you always aim to be funny, you won’t be. It’ll seem contrived, desperate, or forced. The real magic, the 15% that makes improv great, happens when you trust your gut and connect with your instincts.

Career Lesson: Your gut is a muscle (yes, you heard it here first). The more you use it, the stronger it becomes, and most successful people attribute strong instincts to their success. You’ll never take any risks if you don’t trust yourself.

#6 Don’t be a talking head

Long-form improvisation is about scene building. If you don’t know what you want to accomplish or what you want your partner to accomplish then you’re quickly going to devolve into talking heads. We’ve all heard them and sometimes we are them—people who speak but aren’t talking about anything. Improv is about thoughtful contribution and details because that’s what keeps the audience engaged and answers the ever-looming question in improv: Why does this moment matter?

Career Lesson: Before speaking, ask yourself, “What’s my objective by saying this? What do I want to accomplish?” These questions will not only keep you focused but also ensure that what you’re saying has value. Continuously speaking without authentic contribution to a conversation is the quickest way to get people to close their ears.

#7 What are you doing?

Details aren’t always doled out in words; in improv we are encouraged to move around, create a reality rooted in our space and environment, and interact with our partner. Are your actions betraying your words? What action preceded or accompanied your dialogue? All these things create subtext and context and contribute to the story.

Career Lesson: Actions are details, and sometimes our actions speak a narrative different from our words. Even if we aren’t paying attention to our actions or body language, others often are. Whether in the office, at a bar, or at a work activity, ask yourself, “What am I doing?” and check if your actions reflect and represent your purpose. Also, actions bring ideas to fruition, so remind yourself daily: don’t just talk about it, BE about it.

#8 Be invested

It is your energy, enthusiasm, and belief in what you are doing and saying that sells the goods. If you look like you are having fun then those that are watching are going to have fun, too. Energy is contagious and enthusiasm is commitment. In improv we are taught to go all the way and believe it…even if it doesn’t make sense. You’ll find that whatever you confidently commit to, your audience will confidently commit to as well.

Career Lesson: Enthusiasm and energy are conduits of commitment and conviction. If you want others to believe in your vision (of your career, promotion, life, etc) then make sure you are speaking about it in a manner that demonstrates you believe in its possibility, too.

#9 Look out for your team

Improvisation scenes and stories can take you as far as your imagination, but as my improv teacher says, “If you dig a hole, I’m not saving you.” If you start the scene establishing your partner as an alien, space-monkey, beamed down to earth through tortoise shells whose mother is trapped in a snake’s body, then you have to own those details, too. You are now a character in a scene across from an alien, space-monkey, beamed down to earth through tortoise shells whose mother is trapped in a snake’s body. (Good luck establishing a relationship in that one.)

In other words, what is difficult for your partner then becomes difficult for you, so set them up for success. The beauty of improv is that in the same way that person relies on you, you are also relying on that person. Always jump in, do your best, and offer a gift. Remember that each person adds a new layer and keeps the story fresh.

Career Lesson: Many of us have been told, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” This lesson is magnified in the workplace. You will never be an effective or qualified leader or colleague if your team doesn’t trust you. They have to trust that you’ll complete an assignment, always do your best, have their backs in tough situations, and offer general support as needed. Remember what you do to and for people because when they have the chance, that’s likely what they’ll do to and for you.

#10 You can always be yourself

This is a big one, especially for us non-actors. Improv is not necessarily about being a character. If you’re established as a mother in game or scene, then you can be YOUR version of a mother, or monster, or child. It’s our personal quirks, timing, thinking and instinct that make every scene different. Never focus on how others would do it (that will inevitably make you self-conscious), but focus on how you would do it. Each person brings a unique value proposition to every story and environment – themselves.

Career Lesson: Read the previous two lines again.

Improv classes transformed my attitude about everything. I became a better colleague because I was a more active listener, I became a better employee because my contributions were more thoughtful and purposeful, and I became a better leader because I wasn’t afraid to make decisions.

I not only overcame my fear of failure, but I also re-defined it. Failure is not the antithesis of success — but a sign that we are moving closer to it. Thomas Edison was spot on when he said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The real breakthroughs happen when we are persistent. The trick is to always, always, always, keep moving forward.

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About the Author | As a communications coach, Lawrese Brown helps social-enterprise, entrepreneurial and impact-driven professionals strengthen how they connect with others, communicate their ideas, and convey their professional value. If your friends say you ramble, networking conversations make you feel overwhelmed, you hate to be called on to speak in meetings, and you’re still overthinking all your answers before you share them out-loud, then you can book her for private session or join her in NYC at her monthly workshops.

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