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Dave, Jim, and the team at F# take a look at how an Improv class can help you in business and in life.

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Live, from New York:

It’s a nice thing to pick a blog topic that’s on your mind, jump onto the computer to write it out, and then head over to the microphone to do a podcast. But it’s another treat to be able to take that concept and execute the experience live on stage.

That’s what I had the pleasure of doing recently, as I co-taught an Improv class at a company called F# (or F Sharp). F# is a cool digital media start-up in the heart of Manhattan that connects brands to consumers through the power of music in purposeful ads, using social media platforms such as Spotify and Facebook.

I got to meet their COO Pete Jimison when a friend and I offered an Improv class via Skillshare, and he was nice enough to bring us into his new loft-like office in midtown to give a private class to his employees.

After dragging his team away from their desks (these guys work hard!), they quickly warmed up to the interactive lessons and were improvising in no time flat. A pizza break at the halfway point didn’t hurt either. But before we delve into the concepts behind the course, lets take a brief look at how this all started for me.

My Comedy Origins:

When I was a little kid – before the days of Hulu streaming or DVRs or even VCRs – I remember the night that I stayed up later than I ever had before. Like so many nights before, my parents saw me off to bed, probably around 10:30pm, and I shut the door to my room. I managed to stay awake for another hour, and then I quietly turned on the small TV in my room, put the volume on really low, and started watching Saturday Night Live.

I don’t remember who was the host or even any of the skits, but I remember it went on and on for what seemed like forever (even then I could tell that each successive sketch after the news got worse), until finally it ended at 1am in the morning, which seemed like forever.

There were other memories too…
– Listening to a late night radio show called Dr. Demento (don’t ask) with neighbors in a tent while camping
– Rushing home to hear just 10 minutes of standup comedy that WBCN radio played at 5:05 every single weekday
– My cousin Theresa letting me watch Eddie Murphy “Delirious” on HBO while she was babysitting for me.

It came out in 1983 so I was about 13 or 14 and it felt a little wrong to hear his stream of profanity (When I looked up the performance on Wikipedia to verify the date, my memory served me correctly… it said this performance used the “F word” 230 times, and the “S word” 171 times).

But when I looked over to see if she was going to change the channel, she was laughing so hysterically I knew we were cool.

The point is this… there’s always been a little part of me that has wanted to be a stand-up comedian. But I buried it in the back of my mind, when I was old enough to realize the reality… it involved a lot of hanging around in clubs at 2am in order to get 5 minutes on stage, there were some pretty angry hecklers out there, the chances of thriving were slim, and whenever you hear a comedian interviewed on the radio or a podcast, 90% of them seem to have a pretty crappy life, many of them with drinking and relationship problems.

But the mind has a weird way of getting what it wants. Perhaps without even knowing it, maybe that is why I’ve been so drawn into podcasting, writing, and public speaking. It draws on many of the same qualities needed for standup – writing material, performing in front of an audience, working on timing, crafting stories and telling jokes – but in a safer business environment.

So it’s interesting that recently I am not only taking – but co-teaching – an Improv class, combining both comedy and business skills. I teamed up with one of my former students from my NYU class, Dave Coonan, who is an English teacher that is also involved in theater and acting (and also runs a website called Theaterific).

We quickly developed a curriculum and have done a few sessions. It’s definitely still a work in progress and we’ll see how far we can take this, but it’s been an excellent outlet for creativity and our students have responded.

Here are some of the things we’ve learned:

Why Improv?

– Theater helps people break out of their shells and part with inhibitions. It takes a lot to get on stage, especially for people that are shy.
– Being in the “moment” reinforces working on the fly. There’s a certain freedom for someone like me that is always plotting and planning, to find out that when you’re ready to do a scene, thinking ahead of time actually HURTS you.
– Performing on stage forces you to know your environment. When you’re up on stage, it really tunes you into your environment. Where are the other actors, where is the edge of the stage, how far away is the audience?

The team at F# practices Tongue Twisters — a good way to loosen up before performing

Rules of Improv

After warming up our bodies with stretching and voices with tongue twisters, we were ready to get started:

Yes and…

– This is the #1 rule of Improv, and is often followed by its sibling “Not only that, but…”. In Improv you always say Yes.

Is this imaginary plane always filled with golden geese? Yes!
Are you saying that you’re married to both me and my evil stepsister? Yes!
Will this spaceship really bring us to Mars? Not only that, but you get a free spacesuit to wear that is lined with 100% cashmere!

The worst thing you can do is say No on contradict another actor—it grinds the scene to a halt.

Stay positive – stay focused on your objective, and build on what was said

– The goal here is to keep things in a positive direction and continuously build on the last thing that was said, avoiding tangents. If someone sets the scene as working in a shoestore (as seen in the video below), and the actor comes in and orders a frozen yogurt, you’re off on a tangent and things break down quickly.

Avoid open-ended questions; It puts pressure on someone
This can be tricky and is an easy fall back for some. In one class we taught, two students were in a scene, and it got into a routine where one person kept asking questions, and the other was continually put on the spot answering them. We paused them to show that it had become a Q&A, as opposed to working together.

Build to a climax / end on high note
Another hard thing to get the hang of when just starting out is building the scene to a conclusion. You’re so in the moment just trying to keep up and improvise, that you lose sight of how things could conclude.

For example, one scene we gave two people was “You’re traveling down a river in the tunnel of love.” They went back and forth and did a good job with it, but it just kept going. I suggested that what might be helpful is for one of the people to plant something in the beginning of the sketch such as “All I know is, our wedding starts in 5 minutes and we need to get to the end of this river to get there on time.”

Listening is paramount
– Improv fails without listening. If you’re not fully immersed in what everyone else in the group is doing, you won’t be able to take cues and build on the scene.

Overcoming Stage Fright

So what if you can’t even get to the point to do improv because you’re terrified to get on stage? Or you get incredibly nervous when asked to speak in a business setting?

During our preparation we found some interesting research on stage fright. It turns out the process of getting up on stage emits the exact same fight or flight response as if you were being attacked by a tiger back when you were a caveman.

Here’s what happens during fight or flight.
Muscles contract = tense
Blood pressure up = sweat
Rapid breathing = shortness
Digestion stops = butterflies
Pupils dilate = notice everything

Here’s 5 things you can do to overcome it.
1. Recognize the stress; work for you
2. Exercise; stretch; walk around
3. Take deep breaths; laugh
4. Practice and prepare
5. Eat right
– Yes: Low-fat, complex carbs
– No: Milk, caffeine, sugar, alcohol

How does this help you in business?

In our class we covered four areas of business:

1. Public Speaking
2. Sales
3. Boring Meetings
4. Team Building

[An F# employee, Dave Coonan, and Pete Jimison had no problem embracing Improv comedy in front of their co-workers.]

Here were the 5 tips for each:

Public speaking
1. Craft a story – with images
2. Keep working on design
3. Over prepare
4. Intersperse video
5. Find your sense of humor

5 Characteristics for strong salespeople
1. Assertiveness
2. Self-awareness
3. Empathy
4. Problem Solving
5. Optimism

Running successful meetings
1. An effective leader that takes charge
2. Stay on schedule
3. Pay attention to what’s important
4. Encourage collaboration
5 .Conclude with next steps

Effective Team building
1. Communicate goals clearly
2. Commitment to team’s mission
3. Empower team members
4. Create an action plan
5. Offer feedback

I’m not going to go into all the detail on every bullet on every list, but it makes sense when you review the rules of improv…. You keep seeing the same themes of improve directly applicable to all the business tasks above.

Putting it all together

As we went through the course, you could see people slowly emerge from their shells. It was really cool, and made me want to teach more, and help others.

A special thanks to the team at F#. They told me that since they’re a young company — not even a year old — it was a great exercise for them to get to know each other better and learn new, fun ways to work together. You can follow F# on Twitter.

A quick summary:
– Overcome your fear of speaking and become comfortable with being in the spotlight
– Lead with agreement and say yes
– Stay focused on the goal at hand and avoid tangents
– Listen and collaborate with others
– Have an end goal in mind and build to a strong conclusion

So whether you’re a kid sneaking a view of a comedy show after your bedtime or a seasoned executive addressing your shareholders, work a little comedy into your life and check out an improv class.

If you’d like Dave and I to come to your business to run a class, drop me a line at Jim [at] Thehopkinsonreport.com

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