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

Stepping up: Why we need more courageous women in the workplace

The former Chelsea FC doctor settled her constructive dismissal claim against the Premier League club for a reported £5m in June.  Carneiro joined the London club in 2009 and is the first woman to hold such a role in Premier League football. 

On the opening day of the 2015 – 2016 Premier League season Carneiro and the physiotherapist Jon Fearn were criticised by Mourinhro and dropped from first-team duties following the draw with Swansea City.

The public humiliation on the pitch when the spat between Mourinho and Carneiro took place and the resulting media scrutiny of the case are highly unusual. 

Women in male-dominated jobs do not typically usually have their workplace issues played out in front of international media and a live audience of hundreds of thousands. 

I have seen some comment that working in an environment that is so tied up with adrenaline, testosterone and, not least of all, large sums of money, means that all of those involved – women included – have to make allowances for behaviour.  There are plenty that disagree.   

Does working in a male-dominated environment demand that women have special skills, a thick-skin, possibly a very confident demeanour in order to succeed? 

Hillary Clinton, in the campaign to be the Democratic Party candidate and now America’s first female presidential nominee from a major party, has been accused of not playing the gender card to her advantage.  And her assertiveness it seems makes some voters feel uncomfortable. 

And so you have the dilemma.  Business leaders are increasingly asking women to behave in a more courageous, confident way to help them achieve promotional goals and allow them to participate in senior roles.  Jonathan Munro, the BBC’s head of newsgathering, recently claimed that women employees miss out on high-ranking jobs in the BBC because they “don’t feel confident enough.”  Yet being assertive can have its pitfalls, see above. 

Experiences in other male-dominated professions have shown that behaviour improves with the addition of women.  The Royal Navy is such an example. 

In 1993, the Women’s Royal Naval Service (known as the WRENS) was disbanded and 4535 women were integrated fully into the Royal Navy and able to serve on HM Ships at sea, at all ranks and rates.  I have had the opportunity to meet many women in the Royal Navy and work with them in training situations.  It is widely acknowledged by senior ranks of both genders that the inclusion of women on ships helps to normalise behaviour on board for the benefit of all. 

It would be a great shame if women were holding back, increasing their self-doubt and not applying for the next role or promotion as a result of news coverage of high-profile women.  The confidence or courage that business leaders desire is not a skill but a result.  I firmly believe from direct experience in this area that confidence is a tool kit of skills and self-awareness that turns thoughts into action. Improving confidence can be achieved through practice.  It’s a bit like a muscle, the more you exercise the skills and behaviours that help you become more confident, the more courageous you will be.  So don’t let news headlines put you off.  Business, governments, organisations and society in general all need more women to step-up and find the courage to participate. 

This blog piece first appeared on in June 2016