Three improv secrets that can help you perform better at work

Mastering the art of improvisation can be a great workplace aid when the pressure is on

We spend most of our working day speaking without a script – improvising without even realising it. Phone calls, meetings and interactions are not usually meticulously pre-planned and, if they are, the script is often thrown out of the window, and you have to ‘make it up’ as you go along, when the person you are speaking to doesn’t react in the way you expected.

But what happens when you come under pressure during a meeting or presentation? We sometimes panic and freeze if the situation overwhelms us. How do we conquer this problem? By regularly practising the art of improvisation.

The definition of improvisation (or ‘improv’) is the creation of something spontaneously or without preparation. If you become adept at being able to create something without any forethought, then when the situation arises in your work life you are less likely to crumble under the pressure.

Here are three improv secrets to help you perform better at work:

Work under pressure

How can you practise being under pressure? There is a simple exercise that you can do in pairs, while sitting at your desk, to help both of you think on your feet. One person gives the other person a made up word – ‘shugle’, for example – and the other has to give the meaning and origin of the word. Then you switch over. To create a higher-pressure situation, give each other a time limit, or try it in front of the rest of your team. It tests your ability to think off-the-cuff while being under pressure.

Listen better

In happy, productive teams, team members feel heard and understood. Improv exercises help participants learn to be fully present and engaged listeners. This requires individuals to actively listen to their fellow team members so they can hear their ideas, understand their concerns and empathise with their unique needs.

Most of us are bad listeners, whether we like to admit it or not. We don’t listen with the intent to understand, but instead with the intent to reply.

How many times have you been in a meeting, waiting to voice your opinion, and desperate for whoever is talking to stop so you can share your idea? When you do this, you’ve stopped listening to what they are saying and you are just playing the waiting game.

If you have an idea in a meeting, write it down, so you don’t forget it, and then really listen to what the other person is saying. Give them eye contact and listen to every word. Then, when they have finished speaking, you can reply. Respond to what they have said before coming in with your own idea. Improvisers use this skill all the time when creating a story. One person comes in with their idea, and then the other person listens to it and adds to it.

Develop your creativity

Improvisers have learned that creativity takes a whole ensemble approach. You can create an idea on your own, but when you work with another person, or in a team of people, your creativity is joined with theirs and you go to a place that none of you would have been able to go alone. When you are willing to jump down the rabbit hole, others are willing to jump down too.

That is great for improvisers but how can it help in the business world? In meetings and brainstorming sessions ‘cross stimulation’ can happen, which means that someone else can say something that then prompts an idea in you. Their suggestion ignites the creative fire in your mind, triggering a spark that could have only happened as a result of listening to their whole idea.

Regular improvisation exercises can develop your listening and creativity skills and your ability to work under pressure. But like going to the gym, if you only try it once you’re not going to see the same effects as if you regularly exercise. That is true of any skill – practise will create results.

Alexander McWilliam is owner of Improv4Business