Can we learn communications skills from improv (improvised comedy)?

September 2016

Last month, attending shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, I was particularly in awe of the many improv (short for improvised) shows there.  This is a form of live theatre where there is no script - the plot, characters and dialogue - are all made up on the spot. Suggestions for these are taken from the audience. This takes a particular skill.  “How do you prepare or rehearse?” I quizzed some of the players after one performance.  It seems that there are exercises and games they play to get in the right mood, but what’s obvious is an over-riding sense of self-belief alongside the ability to deliver funny witticisms.   The players I met also said that they have a strong group dynamic – they rely on each other on stage to work together to ensure the show is funny and often extremely clever.

Can leaders or emerging leaders learn how to communicate more effectively from the rules of improv? 

We live in very visual times.  Not since the 1920s when motion pictures were first produced with sound, stimulating the massive growth of the movie industry, has the moving image been so important.  Social and digital media has allowed everyone to become a journalist through the use of smart phones, or become a movie maker, or a commentator.  It means that everything is recorded on film and the players – ordinary people, in business, in leadership positions - are under scrutiny like never before. 

This puts pressure on leaders, and emerging leaders, who need to be more than polished performers, they need engage with conviction otherwise they risk being exposed by the ever present camera.  Engaging audiences, different stakeholder groups - both internally and externally – takes skill and self-belief.  It sounds simple but if it was that easy CEOs would all be actors.

Communication matters.  I have seen a CEO’s performance improve with the right coaching such that her first shareholder meeting post-training delivered positive headlines and an increase in the share price of the organisation she was leading. 

Two key lessons we can learn from improv: the ability to listen and to collaborate. Good improv is fundamentally these two things – really hearing what your fellow performer has just said on stage, thinking about it immediately, and acting upon it with trust. Almost all witty comedy comes from considering and then reacting to something that was just said – this is impossible without first listening carefully. Collaboration is similarly central to these performers. The group are trying as a collective to deliver a funny and engaging experience. It’s a team game, much like business.

It is widely accepted that good communication skills are the cornerstone of leadership effectiveness. A good communicator has the ability to perform but also to listen.    Many high-performing executives get themselves into trouble in their organisations, invariably stemming from egotism and underdeveloped emotional intelligence.  Modern leadership requires competence as well as the ability to empower others through effective communication. 

Many people assume that improving communication skills refers to media training or learning specific presentation skills.  I believe that emerging leaders, especially women who can be held back by a lack of confidence, need to think much wider and consider the context as well as the content of communications.   Examining the required language, attitudes, behaviours as well as delivery of communications helps women to succeed in complex organisations and corporate environments. 

Developing an understanding of how to frame your message, articulate well, manage an audience, when to use humour and the importance of non-verbal communications helps to build confidence.  These all form part of a skill-set, building blocks if you like, which when combined results in better performances.  Women particularly benefit from this approach.

A great leader makes communication look easy.  Speeches can be written by others, content rehearsed and rehearsed, jokes inserted to provide a variety of pace, but in the end to really land the message, to inspire and engage with others leaders need to be authentic and passionate.  Learning core skills such as how to interject and understanding the effects of your communication on others will help all emerging leaders to reach promotional goals.

This blogpost first appeared on LinkedIn in June 2016


Cambridge Impronauts

Cambridge Impronauts