How Improv Made Me a Better Collaborator

I’m definitely the type of person who is always up for trying something new (a new adventure, a new cuisine, a new sport). For the most part, I’m pretty OK stepping out of my comfort zone. Yet there was one thing that I’d wanted to try for years but somehow couldn’t muster the courage to attempt: improv.   

A few months ago, I dared myself to go to my first improv class. My inspiration for finally confronting this fear came from years of my mother nagging me to take a public speaking class, coupled with a deep admiration for an ex-boyfriend’s quick wit and banter. Toastmasters just seemed too serious and not my jam, so I hoped that improv would serve as a more accessible way to boost these desirable life skills. Much to my surprise, the class exceeded my expectations. What I hadn’t expected was that improv would help make me a better team member, a better collaborator, and a better art director.

Diving into the world of play

Like most improv first-timers, I flew solo. I was terrified of not being clever enough, quick enough—and basically just looking like a complete idiot. My instructor, Marcus, was full of energy and quickly assured us newbies that improv is not about being clever (big sigh of relief). It is about paying attention, focusing on the present, and committing to what you’re doing. It made me recall the famous quote by Paul Rand (one of my design heroes): “Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good.” 

Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good.

We began with silly warm-up exercises that involved clapping our hands and stomping our feet, and we ended with more elaborate speaking scenarios. I rotated between feeling like a kid at camp and feeling pretty ridiculous. It felt like a total departure from my day-to-day, and I soon realized that I needed to stop self-monitoring and instead fully commit and dive into this world of play. I was amazed at some of the things that spilled out of my mouth. The more I let go of my inhibitions, the more fun it became. And the more fun it was, the better the outcome. Cool.

During that very first class, a light bulb went off for me. The collaboration between players in improvisation is not unlike the collaboration of team members in a creative environment, where people with different backgrounds and skill sets work together, playing off of each other, to produce a final product. But the best thing was that improv reminded me of the importance of play—and play is what the creative process and creative spirit are all about. 

So I decided to start using some of my improv techniques at work—to inject more play, humor, and whimsy into my design process. And I had some pretty amazing results.

The first rule of improv (and, uh, communication in general)

You may have heard that the first rule of improv is to say “yes, and…” This means that to keep things moving, you build off of what someone says by agreeing with it—rather than negating it (that’s when crickets step in to fill awkward pauses)—and then add more information to encourage a response.

Suppose someone says, “I brought you this cute little snow globe from my trip to Japan—do you like it?” In improv you would never respond with, “Oh sorry, but I really have no use for knick-knacks.” (Cue the crickets.) Instead, the response would be, “Oh, I love it—and how on earth did you get that photo of me and my family in it?”

If you keep things going, you never know what you’ll learn along the way or where you’ll end up!

The beauty in the “yes, and…” approach is that if you keep things going, you never know what you’ll learn along the way or where you’ll end up! 

Here at Firewood, we promote a very collaborative atmosphere (and I truly love getting input from everyone on the team). But every once in a while a team member will suddenly drop a bomb of an idea—one that threatens a rework of the project (typically when I’d just started to believe the project was almost finished). So when it happened recently, I thought it might be a great time to try the “yes, and…” approach. 

The conversation went something like this:

COPYWRITER

Hey Lauren, this deck is not quite working. We need more clarity to explain the user journey. I’m going to add a slide with more information about the process. 

Two hours and lots of copy later…

LAUREN

[inner monologue]

Holy guacamole! That’s a lot of words for one slide. How should I do this? Break it up into two or three slides? Or maybe cut some copy? Presenting all this information in three columns is so confusing. I’m not sure the reader will know where to start!

Pause. Time for the “yes, and…” approach…

LAUREN

[out loud]

OK, I see your point. Perhaps I can break things up a little differently. What if instead of presenting the information in three columns, we take a more visual approach with arrows to depict the step-by-step user journey? And maybe with the help of some icons to illustrate each step, we can lose a few words or shorten the headers? Sound good?

COPYWRITER

 OK, have a crack at it. But I’m not sure we can pare down words. And we definitely need to keep all this information in one slide to keep the deck concise.

Two hours and many arrows and icons later…

COPYWRITER

Ahhh! That looks so much better. It really helps illustrate the point. And now I see where I can trim a few words as well! 

As in improv, applying the “yes, and…” approach at work forces me to slow down, take a breath, and focus on moving things forward, helping to uncover more information and foster collaboration. More often than not, bomb-like input illuminates an important issue that needs a bit more exploration. “Yes, and…” helps move things toward a solution, although—as in improv—the end result is usually not what the bomb-dropper (or I) initially thought it would be. 

“Yes, and…” helps move things toward a solution.
Building trust 

Improv is all about creating a safe space for the participants to play so that they don’t feel the need to self-monitor. And this is truly what has to happen for any kind of brainstorming session or collaboration to be productive. 

When brainstorming, often it’s only the most obvious ideas that surface in the first five minutes (those that are top of mind, uninspired, and typically cliché). But as time ticks by, if a safe space has been created, the ideas become more and more creative, inspired, and—yes—outrageous. The crazy stuff is sometimes too extreme in its purest form but, typically, can be refined into something amazing—and usable.

Recently, I was on a team tasked with creating an animation about a guy who suddenly needs a plumber. We tossed around ideas that ranged from cliché to offbeat: the dude has an overflowing toilet; his upstairs neighbor’s bathtub suddenly comes crashing down into his apartment; martians invade his home and break his kitchen sink by playing with the garbage disposal. We all laughed, but then someone said, “Hey, maybe there’s something here.” 

And from that far-out idea, our guy ended up with a leak in his kitchen sink and a parade of objects floating by him in a room filled with water—a final effort that both surprised and delighted our client. 

 

Taking a leap of faith

At my improv class, the room was always filled with a mix of people of all different backgrounds and ages. I quickly learned that the people who were best at improv brought their own experiences and authentic selves. And sometimes (correction: most times) that meant being vulnerable and taking that leap of faith that they’d end up somewhere special. 

Last week, I was given a presentation deck to lay out with a tight deadline. Starting from a blank slate can be scary (especially under a tight deadline), but I started with a simple design on the first slide, knowing that if I could just get started, let my mind go, and take a leap of faith—even if I had to throw out the first few slides—I would get to something special.

As I got started, my manager hopped in and we worked in tandem. One of us would lay out a slide and then the other would refine it. We moved quickly and played off of each other. I focused on the moment and could not anticipate how, exactly, this deck would take shape. We had to lean on each other to keep the deck moving in the right direction and—just as in improv—this took a fair amount of trust.   

Through many iterations and working closely with a small and talented team of writers and designers, I saw the once-blank slate morph into a tight and beautiful piece.

Practicing active listening (aka staying in the moment)

The final takeaway from improv is a survival technique: listen actively. In improv, conversations can be fast-paced, and thinking on your feet requires you to be very present. This same active-listening skill is absolutely imperative in client meetings. 

We’ve all been caught zoning out or multitasking during an important meeting that resulted in momentarily losing track of what was happening or, worse, missing an important thought or idea that could move a project forward.

What I discovered is that active listening—staying in the moment—heightens my engagement and stimulates my creativity. 

Active listening...heightens my engagement and stimulates my creativity.
When the magic happens

As adults, it seems that we’re trained to see work and play as mutually exclusive. But improv reminded me of how important it is to intertwine the two. My best design results happen when I let myself explore, be curious, and take chances in a playful and lighthearted way. Sure, it can definitely feel like I’m wasting time when I take this approach, but I often remind myself that it’s OK to toss ideas or work away. Sometimes those ideas make their way back into future projects, but sometimes they simply find their way into the garbage can. 

Allowing myself the space and permission to fail is the best way for me to make new connections and create aha moments. It allows for humor and whimsy to find their way into even the most mundane projects, and that’s when the magic happens.

Exploring improv has been a ton of fun and seeing how it has influenced other parts of my life is quite surprising. Oh, but one small disclaimer: while the “yes, and…” approach has made me a stronger art director, it does not always work while parenting.  

“Mom, can I have more dessert?”

Allowing myself the space and permission to fail is the best way for me to make new connections and create aha moments.
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