A group of co-workers sit and share a laugh together in a meeting.

Improv’ing is the Key to Improving Your Creative Life in Incredible Ways

For a lot of people, the prospect of getting up to speak in front of our peers sounds terrifying – let alone ‘making up’ a presentation as you go.

It’s very unlikely that anyone would agree to present on topics that we haven’t researched – or topics that the crowd has thrown over to us.

Nor would we feel completely comfortable with the prospect of ‘backing up’ our co-presenter, committing to offer positive reinforcement, no matter what he or she said.

And yet if we could do any of the above, we might find that the result is a dramatic improvement in the way we work – and the way that we feel about it. At least according to Brandon Rudd, Co-Founder of Shut the Front Door Improv in London, Ontario.

Improv Has Lessons for Everyone

The art of improv regularly encourages individuals to do all of the above, and around the world, professionals who are brave enough to learn the fundamentals are reaping the rewards.

“I think improv gives you so many skills that come in handy in any discipline or business,” says Brandon.

The Power of Simply Saying “Yes, And…”

“The number one rule of improv is called ‘yes, and,’ and having that in place often times opens a world of creativity, possibility and opportunity to explore what you and your team can do – or even just you as an individual,” Brandon explains.

Essentially, what ‘yes, and,’ means – is that, as a rule, when participants are in the zone of creation, they must never respond negatively to their comrade’s suggestion. For instance, if one partner says, “I’m a tree!” the other must respond with ‘yes, and.’ For example, the response might be, “Yes, and… I’m here to harvest your apples!”

While it may seem silly, having a positive response that’s immediately followed by a contribution keeps the audience in ‘zone’ with the performers. It ensures that the scene is more believable, and perhaps most importantly – keeps the energy up, the story moving forward, and both partners feeling supported in their choices, no matter how zany they may appear.

“To think that you’re going to give an idea or a thought and it’s going to be built upon by your teammates, this this allows us to have creative flow and find sometimes ideas we didn’t know we had,” Brandon says.

How Improv Intersects With Business

Imagine if you felt comfortable and confident to know that your suggestions were heard and that they would be seriously considered by the team… If you had no fear of offering up ideas and suggestions at will, without threat of judgment?

That’s powerful stuff.

According to Brandon, by employing another improv principle called “heighten and explore,” businesses may find that their teams are tapping into a degree of creativity never seen before.

“With ‘heightening and exploring,’ you take the initial idea and the group truly explores and heightens it, to the best that they can,” says Brandon. “What that does is it gives a sense of group involvement, and a ‘sky’s the limit’ approach to whatever you’re trying to accomplish. It empowers your team to unleash ideas, and potential, which in turn, I believe, gets those employed invested in a great project. And when employees are invested, it’s been proven that they do their best work and that they can do their best because they’re empowered to come up with great ideas that they’d never have without a formalized approach to brainstorming.”

What If Everyone in Your Office Was Focused On Making You Look Good?

“Another guideline we use, is ‘making your partner look good,’” says Brandon.

“Even though the we may have different politics and hierarchies in our office, to make everyone commit to making each other look good ensures that every idea looks good.”

“By committing to making each other look good, it creates such a feeling of community and of involvement. Everyone brings a little bit and then we build this great thing together. That’s the appeal of improv that a lot of people don’t initially realize – they see it as a performance vehicle. But in a creative environment – we can use the principles to help us build something, piece by piece, each person bringing a ‘brick,’ and not a cathedral. And in the end, you can build something great together.”

What if Someone’s Idea Just Isn’t Very Good?

While employing the principles of improv seem like a very exciting way to approach brainstorming and problem-solving, knowing that positivity is the fuel that keeps the good vibes rolling can be one question: What if an idea isn’t very good – and won’t solve the problem?

“When we ‘heighten and explore,’ an idea and discover that it may not be best one for what we’re looking to achieve – that’s okay,” says Brandon. “What’s important is that it had equal opportunity. Just by thinking creatively it’s helping to break down barriers to solving a problem, and/or to find the best solution or idea.”

How to Start Integrating Improv Into Your Meetings

If integrating improv principles into your business sounds like something you’d like to try, the natural next question becomes ‘how to start?’

“It depends on the culture and environment that you work in,” says Brandon. “Starting to use improv principles could be a major shift or a gradual shift.”

“While the principles are easy to use, easy to explain and easy to understand – it takes a tremendous amount of trust to establish their use in a group, team or company. If there’s already trust between individuals, then using the principles may feel like a small change, however, when there isn’t trust, then there’s a larger learning curve.”

According to Brandon, one of the keys to getting off on the right foot is to have each person in agreement of each group member’s value.

“Our first classes are always the same, whether the students work in industry, finance, or the arts. We always begin with building trust and establishing a safe environment. Essentially, we must acknowledge that every idea has value and that we will explore it together.”

“Once we build that sense of trust, we follow it up with actions that reinforce that trust. In doing so, you start to see buy in from a lot of people – and equally important – the results that you’re looking for.”

Team Trust Allows You to Live in the Moment and Create Freely

“When we [Shut the Front Door Improv Troupe] perform onstage, the best shows are the ones where the audience needs to tell us what we just did,” says Brandon. “Someone will come up afterwards and say ‘I loved that character,’ and you say ‘oh that’s great’ but you can’t remember which one, because improv embodies being in the moment.”

“You don’t have to analyze everything or worry about if it’s ok for you to say what comes to mind, because when you have trust, you can communicate and brainstorm that way freely.”

Brandon specifies that he often finds himself in situations where his students or professional clients are taken aback by the power of improv – as they improvise their way through a brainstorming session and watch their ideas grow larger or more intense, they start to feed off of one another.

“Sometimes the brainstorming doesn’t get you there, but it triggers something in a teammate that will spark an enhanced idea,” Brandon says. “Suddenly there’s no limit in terms of the potential and creativity you can find, and it all comes down to that base of saying yes and, making each other look good and trust.”

How Improv Can Help Storytellers and Creatives Develop Characters

If you’re a storyteller who thinks that the improv brainstorming techniques are the bees knees, then you’re in luck. According to Brandon, these exercises are especially helpful to creatives who are in the beginning of their process.

“Where improv can help the most is more towards the start of the storytelling process,” he explains. “It especially helps you with creating characters. In a group environment brainstorming session, by using improv activities you can get creative with character creation and development. Whether that’s through vocal exercises or ‘on stage’ work. For instance, you may come up with a voice, an inflection, an accent and body movement.”

“There’s a lot of content out there and variations on character traits, but this is an organic way of finding the character. It’s like an drawing it out with an Etch-a-Sketch. If it doesn’t work, you shake it and it goes away like it never happened. You don’t have to feel married to a certain character set or trait, and therefore you can organically explore that character.”

Making Assumptions Can be a Fast Track to Developing Characters

“In improv, when we’re finding our characters in the moment, a lot of times it requires the help of other improv performers and their characters to help explore my character,” Brandon explains. “So if you create a world that’s a test lab, you can dig down to point of view. You can start to ask yourself, ‘If this character reacts this way in this particular situation, what assumptions can we make of the character?’”

In the improv process of character development, team members are encouraged to skip over questioning how the character would behave and instead move straight to making assumptions over their reactions and truths.

“Everyone is contributing to that character being organically built or established through certain activities that encourage exploration,” Brandon says.

“For instance, one thing we do is sit down and have a team member give a one-minute monologue from the character. During this time, the group sits down with a pad of paper and writes down all the assumption they’d make of the character and shares them with the group and character creator.”

“We can even go a step further if we want to see all the characters behaving in a certain environment,” Brandon explains. “We might play around with ‘how would they react at a Metallica concert? What if we put them in a library? Or what if it was a space station?’ Each time you try something new, you get feedback and information that helps you build that character.”

Making a Game of Making Character Assumptions

“Another small game, we play (because assumptions help) has the group members gather in a circle and then one member has to say, “Hi my name is ____ and I’m a _____.” For instance, you may say, ‘Hi my name is Jeff, and I’m a father who likes to go to the YMCA and fly airplanes.’ Then everyone in the group adds to that story based on what they already assume about a person with those attributes. Once you get the ‘obvious’ assumptions out of the way, that’s where you start to get creative.”

According to Brandon, this is also where a lot of laughs start to emerge.

“In between confirming fact, assuming fact and team members making each other look good, by using ‘yes and..’ that’s where the comedy comes in.”

Building a Culture of Creativity – and Trust – Takes Time

For those who are excited by the prospect of building a supportive and creative team, it helps to bear in mind that patience in the process will be required. Brandon advises that in his experience, a culture shift towards embracing improv means understanding three things:

1) It will take time

2) You need to lead by example

3) Your team needs to be committed to honesty

“In any [improv] class, we have one or two people who are reluctant to participate or be as involved as they want to be,” Brandon says. “They may have anxiety, fear of public speaking, or just feel hesitant because they’re unfamiliar with what’s next, but as they see more people doing it and hear reinforcement of ‘what happens in this room stays in this room,’ people start trusting one another.”

“Trust is important,” Brandon explains, “Because where there’s a lack of trust, you can’t make each other ‘look good’ because you feel like you’re having to protect yourself.”

For those in corporate or work environments, Brandon recommends using icebreakers and team building activities to help people feel comfortable enough to start opening up to one another.

However, he’s quick to point out that once you’ve established an environment of trust, the next crucial task is maintaining that environment.

“If there isn’t that continuous protection or feeling of trust – then you’ll run into some challenges and people will no longer trust the process,” he says. “A lot of what we do in classes is making sure that we’re constantly doing a check-in to make sure everyone is feeling safe. One ‘tell’ is whether or not people are taking risks and participating.”

In the End, You Deserve to Have a Work Experience You Enjoy

“The most enjoyment I get is watching people have those aha moments and also – watching them share stories with strangers,” Brandon says of his experience leading Shut the Front Door.  “We did a session for local businesses, and one of the fondest memories I have from that experience was when we played a game called ‘This is my friend.’ In the game, you learn 10 things about the person you’d just met and then tell the rest of the audience who they are, what they do and all of the other details they have. It’s a great activity in listening and promotion – the purpose is to promote ‘your friend’ to the rest of the group. And towards the end, these two people who had known each other for less than an hour, said ‘Thank you so much,’ and gave each other a huge hug.”

“If you create a culture of trust you never have to look back, it’s all forward from there. Personally and professionally, I feel great about what improv can do for individuals and their businesses.”

“If we all used the foundations of improv –  active listening and working towards making each other look good – it’s amazing what creativity we could find.”

Learn More – Including Improv Exercises You Can Use!

Listen to Brandon Rudd and Stephanie Ciccarelli discuss how creative teams can put the principles of improv to use, on the Sound Stories Podcast.

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For over a decade, Tanya has been helping organizations and individuals alike tell their stories. A graduate of Western University, Tanya holds a Bachelor of Science degree, as well as a post-graduate diploma in Public Relations. As an experienced marketing and communications professional, she has helped individuals, start-ups, and multinational corporations craft and amplify meaningful communications across the arts, culture, entertainment, health, wellness, and technology industries.

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