Improv Comedy is Serious Business

Allan Telio, is Program Director at Startup Institute Boston. At the time this post was written, he was VP of Business Development at MyEnergy, a Boston-based web company focused on demystifying residential energy efficiency.


My name is Allan and I have a problem.

It started out when I was in high school and I have been doing it ever since.  I only recently cut back when my wife and I had our second child.

For years, loved ones told me stop wasting my time and focus on my career.  My problem made me look foolish and caused people to laugh at me.  They were right and it’s a good thing I didn’t listen to them.  It turns out, my “problem” has actually helped me develop skills that have been essential for my career in business development.

What’s my problem?  Improv comedy.


There are numerous principles that have helped me be successful at both improv and business development.   The following are my five favorites that I recently taught the business development and sales track at SIB:

1. Yes And - This is the cornerstone of improv.  It is a relatively easy to understand but often one of the hardest things to successfully execute. When creating an improvised scene with a partner, he or she will offer a suggestion.  A good improviser will accept that offer AND build on it.

For example:

Actor 1:  Your pants on fire.

Actor 2:  Yes, you’re right AND I like how it feels.

An odd example but you get the point.  If the second actor had either rejected the offer (My pants aren’t on fire, you idiot.) or redirected the idea with a “Yes but”  (Yes my pants are on fire but I am going to put them out.) the scene would have died.

This principal holds true in business development and sales and is especially important for startups.  In early stages of a company, you are still figuring out the value proposition and feature set that will help land customers.  By speaking with them openly and building on the ideas that they present, you will develop the most effective pitch that will resonate with the market.

"Yes And" should also be embraced when brainstorming ideas within your own company.  Too often I have heard the following in meetings – “Yes that is a great idea but it won’t work for the following reasons.”   While this might be true, don’t kill an idea before it has been fully vetted.

2. Shut Up and Listen - Stop talking.  Seriously.  Shut up and listen to your clients.  In improv you need to listen to your partner in order to move a scene forward.  This is true for business development too.  There have been times when I have been so focused on getting through a pitch deck during a meeting (Power Point can suck it.) that I have talked over clients.  If I had shut up, they would have told me exactly what they needed.  Missing a few slides isn’t the end of the world.

3. Take of Your Pants Off and Go Crazy (AKA No Fear) - In improv and business, you have to put yourself out there.  What’s the worst that could happen?   You’ll be uncomfortable for 10 minutes?  Someone hangs up on you?  Why does that matter?  Why does this principle have so many questions?  Who knows?  Should we move onto #4?

4. Learn from the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared – Improv requires practice.  Hours and hours of practice.  Do you have to be able to think on your feet to be good at improv?  Yes, but you also need to know and practice the basics again and again.  As a sales person, you should never go into a meeting and just “wing it”.  You need to prepare and practice.  Once you know your potential client and your product by heart, you will then have the “bandwidth” to improvise.  It’s impossible to think on your feet if your busy thinking about what comes next in your presentation.

5. Trust & Pixie Dust – Successful improv requires people to work together and trust their troupe members. Trust is the magic pixie dust that makes improv work.  You can’t make people laugh if don’t trust your troupe mates to be there for you on stage.  The same is true for business development and sales.  An effective sales person in a start up can’t think of themselves as a lone wolf for three reasons:

            a. Business development is the link to the outside world.  Providing feedback to the team is essential to company building a new product

            b. Sales is only successful if you trust and rely on your co-workers to execute

            c. You sound like an idiot when you refer to yourself as a lone wolf.  You’re selling stuff, not killing a bison with your teeth.

The principles above can probably be applied to many parts of your life but that will be the subject of a future post….  Now that I think about it, you probably want to limit #3 and keep your pants on.  I don’t want to be responsible for you creating a hostile work environment.

Best of luck and happy selling.

Want to see some improv comedy in Boston?  Check out the following:

A recent piece on NPR examined how top business schools are using improv: