Taking Improv from the Stage to the Workplace

Lessons in improvisation can help bolster communication, teamwork and resiliency

During a program organized by Pratt School of Engineering's PhD Plus Professional Development Program, students and employees participated in improv exercises led by Zach Ward, owner of DSI Comedy Theater in Chapel Hill.
During a program organized by Pratt School of Engineering's PhD Plus Professional Development Program, students and employees participated in improv exercises led by Zach Ward, owner of DSI Comedy Theater in Chapel Hill.

At improvisational comedy theaters such as Chicago’s The Second City and The iO Theater, improvisers are taught that confidence, agreement, attentive listening and authenticity are the backbone of a solid performance.

These same skills can be practiced in the workplace.

As Fortune 500 companies and universities use improvisation for professional development, some Duke units are providing improv workshops to teach adaptability during conversations and how to establish trust, teamwork and listening skills among colleagues.

“Improv gives you the ability to adapt and embrace change,” said Bob Kulhan, an improviser and adjunct professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business who teaches a “Business Improvisation” class. “The benefit of it can be absolutely tremendous in your life, personally and professionally.”

Here are improv tips to strengthen conversations:

Specifics are best

In improv, performers act out scenes on the spot without a script. The audience can provide a word or phrase for inspiration and then the performers provide strong details to each other and work together to create a scene.

In the workplace, sharing details can move a project forward or clarify expectations.

Dan Sipp, an improviser and standardized patient trainer at Duke, leads an improv workshop for the School of Medicine. He said sharing specifics, especially while talking with patients, could help bring issues into sharp focus.

“Specifics help us connect with a person and help us connect with a story,” Sipp said. “When you’re not specific, you cause people to make assumptions.”

Be accepting of new ideas

Considered the main mantra of improv, “Yes, and…” is always on improvisers’ minds during a performance.

On stage, “Yes, and…” means unconditionally accepting information presented by a scene partner and adding useful information, said Kulhan, the Fuqua adjunct professor. If a performer says, “I need to take my dog to the vet,” her scene partner could respond with, “Yes, and I will drive us there in my Subaru.” “Yes, and…” moves the intent and action forward.

In the workplace, “Yes, and…” means keeping an open mind during conversations and considering all presented ideas.

“’Yes, and…’ is a bridge to thoughtfulness and connection and empathy and engagement,” Kulhan said.

Be resilient in the face of ‘No’

In improv, a performer must present information on the fly to flesh out a scene, and scene partners accept ideas to move a performance forward.

At work, not all ideas are unconditionally accepted.

In a recent workshop for Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, Zach Ward, owner of DSI Comedy Theater in Chapel Hill, taught Ph.D. students how to be resilient, including how to manage one’s ego.

“We need to get resilient in the face of ‘no’ because we’re going to hear ‘no’ more often than we think,” Ward said.