5 Secrets from Improv Comedy to Fuel Your Career Success


Credit: istockphoto.com

by Rob Biesenbach

What if I told you that everything you need to know about career success can be learned from the art of improvisational comedy?

It’s true. “Improv,” as it’s known, is about way more than belly laughs and physical antics. It’s actually based on important principles like empathy, listening, storytelling and supporting others.

In fact, one of the foundational rules of improv is that you’re not on the stage to make yourself look good—you’re there to make others look good. It’s all about supporting your scene partners.

These principles offer a practical guide for advancing your career, achieving success and, of course, being a better person. Don’t believe me? Read on.

Listen better

We’re all expert communicators; but we’re not always great listeners. Listening is the foundation of acting (which is all about reacting) and it’s obviously vital to what we do every day.

When someone comes to us with a problem, listening—truly listening—is about more than closing the door and putting down the phone. It’s also about shutting off that instinct in our heads to anticipate where the other person is going, make snap judgments and jump in with the answers.

The next time you’re in an important conversation, see if you can shut off that “inner analyzer” and tune in to what the other person is saying—with their words, their expressions, their gestures. You might be surprised by what they’re really telling you.

Need help with your listening skills? Here’s a quick guide.

Interact like a human being

One of the scariest aspects of improv is that you are supposed to walk into a scene with absolutely no plans or preconceptions. You’re in the moment and open to the possibilities.

But too often in business, we rely on assumptions about people and their behaviors. It’s crazy how our minds work sometimes.

When managing or working with others I try to let go of those assumptions. Here are two important principles I try to live by:

  1. Assume competence. When a colleague says something that you don’t think is correct, don’t automatically assume or declare that they’re wrong. It’s quite possible they know something you don’t. Instead, ask questions like, “Where did you get that information?” or “Are sure that’s correct? That’s not what I heard.”
  2. Assume innocence. This is where the mind runs wild and you start dreaming up nefarious motivations behind people’s behavior. They’re sloppy, or lazy or inattentive. Perhaps it was an innocent mistake, or it wasn’t their fault at all — maybe they didn’t get the support or resources they needed to succeed. Again, ask questions and be open to what you hear.

There’s no “I” in improv

OK, technically the word improv has an “I” in it, but figuratively the art of improv is all about the ensemble, not any individual.

Be open to collaboration (even with erstwhile competitors), share credit generously, and do us all one huge favor: banish the word “my” from your vocabulary. As in “MY team,” “MY department,” “MY people.”

They are not yours. You don’t own them. Talk instead in terms of “our,” “we” and “us.” The difference is important.

Open up and tell your story

All great performers bring a bit of themselves to the stage. It helps them connect with the characters they play, which in turn helps the audience connect with the performance.

In the same way, your colleagues, buyers, and others want to see a bit of the “real” you—who you are and what drives you. People want to work with humans, not machines.

Yet I’ve found even professional communicators are not very good at talking about themselves, whether in a presentation, meeting, networking event or job interview. Too often we resort to a dry recitation of our credentials and career history.

That’s just a bunch of data, and data doesn’t stick. Instead we should be telling the story of who we are. Stories have been scientifically proven to be far more compelling and persuasive than ordinary information.

Learning to capture our experience and value in a coherent narrative—with a beginning, middle and end, a little conflict, even some drama—is an important way to stand out in the marketplace and increase our influence and impact on others.

Practice empathy

Great acting comes from a deep understanding of the human condition—being able to look into people’s hearts, to know where they’re coming from, to empathize with their situation.

Sadly, the online world is often the exact opposite of that. It’s about instant judgments, dehumanizing others and casual cruelty.

We’re all familiar with the social media dogpile. Many of us have participated in it. We’ve said and done things online that we’d never dream of doing “IRL” to another person. It may be a cliché but it’s true that we never really know what other people are going through.

Let’s all agree to give our fellow humans the benefit of the doubt. Let’s work to restrain our itchy Twitter finger and see how things play out before jumping in head (or spleen) first.

Let’s try practicing a little more compassion—in our work and in our life. Not only will it make us better people, it just may contribute in some small way to making the world a better place.

About the author
Rob Biesenbach uses communication principles from the world of show business to help leaders succeed in their business. He’s an in-demand speaker and trainer, an award-winning consultant, a bestselling author and a Second City–trained actor. Don’t miss his presentation at the 2019 IABC World Conference: Secrets from the art of improv comedy to help you survive and thrive in a divisive world.