“If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian philosopher
When I first joined the Forty team, I hoped to infuse a little bit of my passion for improvisation into our work environment. I had no idea exactly what I was doing, but I knew one thing to be true – improv had completely changed my life, and I knew it had the power to completely change Forty as well. We began our exploration of improv with a one-hour session, where we covered a small amount of improvisational theory and discussed how it relates to our world as a branding and marketing agency. Then, we learned a handful of improv exercises to improve our skills. Now, we do 15 minutes of improv every morning before our daily stand-up meeting to get our blood flowing and continue practicing.
Improv is the art of making stuff up on the spot. It’s usually performed on a stage in front of a live audience that gives “suggestions” to inspire the scenes. Every show is completely different. There’s no script, no planning ahead, and the audience and the players have no idea what’s going to happen. People all over the planet practice improv, teach improv, write books about improv, and get paid to perform improv. It’s really become a big deal… and it’s awesome.
Why is improv awesome?
I often tell my colleagues about my trip to Chicago (the mecca of improv) for a workshop and how that experience changed my life. After spending just a few days in Chicago with talented improv directors and performers, I finally started to understand who I was on that trip. It unlocked me in a way that nothing else had. As a result, I fell in love with this art form, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
I often have a hard time putting the greatness of improv into words, and I could write an entire book trying to explain why it’s the greatest thing since Wayne Gretzky. Instead, I’ll share the lucky seven reasons why we practice improv at Forty:
Improv teaches us to listen. There’s nothing more fundamental to understanding people and their needs than being a good listener. Listening isn’t waiting for your turn to speak. It’s truly absorbing and digesting what the other person is saying and how they’re saying it. Improv teaches us absolutely everything is important. If we stop listening for one second, we may miss out on an opportunity to support our teammate’s ideas and make them look brilliant. At Forty, we need to pay attention to everything our clients communicate — written, spoken, or unspoken. We need to listen to the tone and character of the company so well that we know the brand intimately and can develop an authentic experience that really connects with their audience.
Improv teaches us how to support each other. “Yes and” is an essential concept in improvisation. It’s a “rule” that’s drilled into the heads of every beginning improviser. The “yes and” rule exists because creativity can’t go anywhere without acceptance and support. In improv, there are no wrong answers, and every choice you make on stage is the right choice. Your teammates accept and receive your choices as “gifts” and their sole focus is on heightening, building, and growing the gift that you’ve given. At Forty, we need to accept creative ideas and give them space to grow. When one of us makes a statement with a brand concept or a design, the rest of us acknowledge and accept the work. Then, we add our own creative input to build it into something even better than it was before.
3. Making statements
Improv teaches us to make bold statements. When performing improv, the cast members need to know how to make statements and commit to those statements. They don’t just stick with their statement. They cling to it and hold on for dear life. In improv, you don’t have the luxury of revisions, the delete key, or (my personal favorite) command-Z. Things get really ugly when all the performers are unsure who they are, where they are, how they know each other, or what the heck is going on. As an audience member, you can tell when they’re stuck in their heads, and you can’t wait for the next scene. At Forty, we want our clients to stand out. We want to help them make bold statements that really connect with their audience in a way their competitors only do in their dreams. If they just want the same brand as everyone else, they came to the wrong theatre.
4. Speaking from the heart
Improv teaches us to go deeper. Each person has such a wide variety of emotions, ideas, and experiences to draw from our lives. Improvisers learn how to tap into that well and let it all out on stage. It makes for really crazy character choices and amazing scene work that leaves an audience breathless. At Forty, we insist on going beyond the obvious. We ask deeper questions. We challenge the notion that businesses only exist to make a profit. What else is there besides the first few design choices that pop into our heads? Improv teaches us to tap into our own internal search engines and pull out all of that awesome, gooey goodness that’s embedded deep within the realm of our experiences.
5. Being flexible
Improv teaches us to be more responsive to change. When someone makes a surprising choice during an improv show, the other players have no choice but to be quick on their feet. When the audience screams out a suggestion, the improvisers don’t have any time to think. They have to just roll with it. The pressure’s as hot as the lights, and it’s time to do something even if nothing is coming to them. At Forty, we believe in being agile, fluid, and flexible. We work iteratively, and we learn as we go. We need to understand nothing is certain, have conviction in our choices, and adapt to the unexpected.
6. Embracing the awkward
Improv teaches us it’s ok to be uncomfortable. I don’t remember a single moment on an improv stage that didn’t feel awkward at first. However, it’s usually the most awkward moments on stage that end up being the most successful. We tend to shy away from uncomfortable situations. When people get too close, have really bad body odor, or want to talk about really sensitive topics, we want to squirm out of that moment as quickly as possible. Improv teaches us to be more candid, honest, straightforward, and to speak from our gut. I’ve seen many different companies suffer from a simple lack of trust, candor, and openness. When people don’t feel like tackling something head-on because it’s strange or awkward, the entire organization gets held back.
7. Achieving group mind
Finally, improv teaches us to trust the power of the group and pursue the elusive phenomenon of group mind. There’s a big difference between groupthink and group mind. Groupthink is lazy and bad. Group mind is one step away from heaven. Groupthink is when a team all says yes to the first idea that pops in their heads, simply because it’s easier to just say yes than to attack the problem together and come up with the best possible solution. Group mind is the holy grail of improv. Group mind is when everyone is listening, “yes and”-ing, making strong statements, speaking from the heart, adapting to changes, and embracing the awkward in perfect harmony. Each member of the team knows when it’s his or her turn to contribute. Everyone knows their roles and speaks with conviction and respect. The team is buzzing with creativity, energy, and enthusiasm. Improv reminds us we’re a team, where everyone trusts each other. We all know each member is here to build one another up and make each of our ideas better. We can honestly believe the work we come up with as a group will be a million times better than what we would have come up with on our own.
For us, improv isn’t just about being silly and having fun for a few minutes every morning. It’s a great way to build our team, improve our creative process, and build our own personal communication skills. We practice improv because it exercises those muscles required to be sincerely engaged, present, and responsive. We want to develop real human connections with each other, with our clients, and between our client’s brand and their target audience.
*photo credit – Brandi Sims