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A few months ago, I was listening to an interview with keynote speaker and poet, Sekou Andrews (who is amazing!). He suggested that to be a better professional speaker, you should take time to develop complimentary skills, like improv comedy. As I was listening to the interview, I Googled improv comedy and there just happened to be a class starting for beginners in my neighborhood.

When I told friends I’d signed up for improv, the two most common responses were, “that’s brave,” or “you’ll be good at that, you’re funny.” Improv doesn’t require being brave (well, maybe a little), nor funny. What it requires is being willing to be present and deal with the unknown. As our instructor Greg explained the very first night – think of improv as “theater without a script.” When it is done well, comedy is the by-product.

Fast forward eight weeks later, I’m finishing level one, and I realize there are a lot of life lessons to be learned from improv.


  1. NEGATING WHAT SOMEONE HAS SAID: “YES, AND” is one of the key concepts in improv. The idea is to avoid negating what someone has said by accepting and acknowledging what has been said and then building on it. The way to do that is to say, “yes, and….”For instance, if someone in a scene says, “I cooked a delicious pasta marinara with meatballs for you.” You want to respond by saying something like, “yes, and that wonderful garlic bread you make.”If instead, you say “no, I don’t like Italian food,” it kills the scene because you negated what was already there. Listen to yourself when you are talking with colleagues, friends and family. Are you the one who kills the scene with ‘no,’ ‘but,’ or, ‘we can’t?’ If you squash people’s ideas, they’ll stop coming to you with them. They’ll find a way around you or they’ll stop being creative and give up. The habit of “yes, and” builds on the energy in the conversation, whereas negating people cuts off the energy, momentum and connection.
  2. TOO MANY QUESTIONS: The instructor sets up a scene by saying something that offers basic elements, “I need three of you to take the stage. You’re at Starbucks, you know each other from med school and you’re in town for a reunion.”In response, we could ask a million questions – How long has it been since med school? What city are we in? Are we still friends? Or, we could jump in and start playing with what we do know and build from there. Often, as beginners, one of us would ask too many questions hoping to make it easier, to not make mistakes or because we wanted to look like we knew what we were doing.In life, there is a balance between asking questions to get the information you need vs. asking questions to avoid action until every possible risk is eliminated. In its extreme, any strength can become a drawback. Being an information-gatherer can be a wonderful quality until you take it to the extreme of not acting on the info because you never have enough assurance. Being curious by asking questions can be a great quality until you do it so intensely that people feel they are being interrogated rather than having a relaxed conversation with you. Asking too many questions can be a way to keep attention off yourself and put the burden of disclosure on the other person.
  3. PLAYING THE SCENE YOU WANT INSTEAD OF THE ONE YOU’RE IN: In improv, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself and to think you know where the scene is going. Then, you start imagining what you could say or do that would fit in that hypothetical scene. Advanced improv players know they need to trust the process and let it unfold. To do that, you need to stay in the scene and be fully present. Most of us do that in life too – jump ahead to anticipate what the results of a conversation, a meeting or a new introduction might be rather than allowing it to unfold and stay present in the ‘now.’The wonderful thing about being present is that it eliminates worry, guilt and a whole lot of other things we’d happily avoid. In the present moment, there is only what is real. Are you spending more mental time in the scene of your life that is real or in past and future scenes?
  4. NOT LISTENING: In improv, when I catch myself not listening, I’ve usually missed something that makes it tough to contribute, because I don’t know what’s happening. One line, one nuance of a character can make a big difference. It’s amazing to notice how many times in a two-and-a-half-hour class we all space out, get distracted or, lose focus. I’m big on learning to listen. In my audiences at live events, I teach listening skills on a regular basis because the changes I see in people are mind boggling. Listening cures problems, heals relationships, and generally makes life easier to understand. Today, for just one day, practice listening more and talking less. Report back and let me know how that goes.
  5. WANTING TO BE THE STAR: Said another way, in improv, “the joke kills the scene.” If one person goes for the funny line, and wants to be the star, it kills the scene because the audience laughs at that person’s funny line and then it ends. A more experienced improv’er will invest their energy in making their team members look good, by offering them additions to the scene, supporting where they’re headed and letting them be in the limelight.In life, every success book I’ve ever read talks about the importance of helping others succeed rather than being solely focused on our own goals. Who are you helping to reach their goals? Who are you uplifting today? Pay attention to whether your life is all about you, or includes the needs and goals of those around you.

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