When I came to Startup Institute as part of the current cohort, I never expected improv theater to be a part of the curriculum. But midway through week 3, there on the schedule was a workshop with The Engaging Educator which, a quick search revealed, would teach us the benefits of improv in business.
I was understandably confused. Improv? Theater? In a tech career program?
[bctt tweet="5 Reasons Why Studying #Improv Will Make You Brilliant at Business, by @KateOrgera" username="StartupInst"]
Improv, or improvisation, and scripted theater have been a huge part of my life—one I thought I'd left behind two years ago when I finished my last musical with my college theater troupe. Before that, I'd done at least a show a year since I was seven years old, earning the superlative of "Most Likely to Go To Broadway" in my eighth-grade yearbook and enjoying curricular theater and improv classes as part of my high school's accredited audition-based program. Basically, the only reason I didn't major in theater was because I loved writing just a little bit more.
Still, I kept performing in student shows and taking one-off classes to stay positive amidst the grind of a rigorous class schedule. Upon graduating, I figured it best to leave theater behind, at least while I was trying to get a career off the ground.
But our session with Olive Persimmon from The Engaging Educator became a huge eye-opener. Pangs of nostalgia hit me full-blast as we played the improv games I used to share with cast members in shows past. Yet, at the same time, my perspective on the future shifted—I could ground those games, and all my experiences from my theatrical past, in my present quest for a career.
I also loved getting to see my new friends in the cohort, who maybe hadn't benefitted from theater growing up, experience the benefits of the exercises. As I learned later, a lot of professionals are catching onto the benefits of improv in professional life, with sites like Forbes and CNN discussing its virtues.
Now, some might be reading this and thinking, So, they want us to lie? Isn't that the opposite of good business values?
Acting has gained a negative connotation over hundreds, if not thousands, of years for being, essentially, "lying." But just as startups wish to show how good business is not about greed or cheating, good acting is not about lying—in fact, good acting empowers you to put your best self forward.
The benefits of improv skills in the workplace:
1. Making decisions with conviction
The very basis of acting is to, well, act. On stage, you have to make a choice for your character and carry it out, because you can't hit pause or call “cut” in live theater.
In real life, and particularly in high-pressure work situations, it is easy to become paralyzed by overthinking, which hampers any real progress to solve a problem. Improv comedy helps to break that cycle by forcing you to make a choice and run with it—you can test and adjust as you go.[bctt tweet="Improv teaches you that overthinking can paralyze progress, says @KateOrgera" username="StartupInst"]
2. Loosening up and shaking it out
When it's opening night and your body is tense and your lines have escaped you, nothing helps like a good shake out. Improv games like Crazy Eights are amazing tools to help loosen up pre-performance jitters, whether you're singing in a concert or giving a business presentation. Improv also helps you to loosen up mentally, making you think more creatively. In my personal experience, performing improv the night before my SATs ended up being way more beneficial than sitting and studying into the wee hours of the morning, because my mind was relaxed and focused on solutions, instead of tense and tired. Laughter is not only the best medicine, but the best business move.[bctt tweet="#Laughter is not only the best medicine, but the best business move, says @KateOrgera" username="StartupInst"]
3. Laughing at yourself
Speaking of laughter, it's so easy to take yourself too seriously in the workplace. Of course, focus and maturity are important to maintain, but the impulse to keep up perfect composure can be detrimental to performance, teamwork, and mental health. Improv comedy and theater can teach us that it's okay to be a goof and laugh at yourself. Sometimes, it's only through a willingness to laugh at ourselves that we can find the courage to live life to the fullest. After all, if you're willing to stand on stage in a pillowcase with no shame (yes, I have actually done this), you can do pretty much anything.
[bctt tweet="The impulse for perfect composure is detrimental to performance, teamwork + health— @KateOrgera" username="StartupInst"]
4. Collaborating and reading the cues
The best improv is not done alone. Watching two or more people playing off each other in a scene, with no clue where said scene is going, is what improv is all about.
While good actors can make it look effortless, improv—like any team effort—is hard work. Actors have to communicate their actions to a scene partner simply using subtle cues and glances, so everyone on stage has to pay close attention to what is being said and done. If one person flubs, the others pick up the slack, and any ego or attempts to dominate will quickly ruin the effort. Similarly, for scripted theater, actors all have to know who's coming and going at what points, be present, and be prepared to provide cover if something goes wrong.
Off the stage, business teams need to take a page from actors' books in order to work harmoniously. Just as in theater, team-building takes communication, trust, and an effort to be there for each other, to make any sort of venture work. [bctt tweet="#Business, like #theater takes communication, trust + commitment, says @KateOrgera" username="StartupInst"]
5. Shifting your perspective
As previously stated, good acting is not about lying or faking who you are. Others may describe it differently, but for me, I never became someone else when I was acting. It was still me up there—in fact, in some ways, I was more myself. I could show intense emotions, from radiant joy to deep despair, that I don't get to show in everyday life.
I think acting is more about a shift in perspective. On stage, I portrayed myself as if I were in a given situation. I channeled experiences I've had, or experiences I imagined, in order to portray the character and tell the story. Basically, it's an attitude adjustment, which is as valuable off the stage as it is on.
The Engaging Educator emphasized this by having half of our the group act as confident, open “10” personalities, and half our group act as downcast, closed-off, “2” personalities—interacting with each other before switching scenarios. Experiencing both “10” and “2” mindsets in rapid succession—and how each can come off to others—really shows how your perspective affects body language, and thus impacts how effectively you can communicate and express yourself.[bctt tweet="The energy you bring shapes body language + what you communicate outward, says @theengaginged" username="StartupInst"]
Being able to shift your perspective like this in real life, even if you feel unsure, can help your best self to shine through. I won't pretend it's easy—even with my background, I struggle to be as much of a “10” in real life as I've been on stage. But when you can do it, your professional life can improve immensely.
Shifting your perspective in this way also promotes empathy with others—whether they be your audience, your customers, or simply those in different walks of life who need to be heard. We may not be able to completely live in another person's experience, but you would be surprised how close you can come if you let yourself try. Cultivating this empathy will not only improve your professional life, but will improve your appreciation for life in general.[bctt tweet="Cultivating #empathy improves you as a professional + your appreciation for life, says @KateOrgera" username="StartupInst"]
As you go forward in your career, remember, as the Bard himself once said:
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players[...].