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Improvisational theatre is making a comeback in business schools and boardrooms. Learn how it can be used to help finance professionals improve soft skills.

Improvisational theatre is an art form that creates scenes and stories from given ideas. It has been around for a while. The art form is well-known for its absurd, unscripted scenes that are performed on stage. It has been featured on programs like Whose Line? in the UK, and the US.

Improv has been a staple of every actor’s toolkit. Professionals in other industries are increasingly getting involved in improv. They find it a valuable skill that can foster entrepreneurship, nurture creativity, build leadership skills, and promote entrepreneurship. Financial professionals have made improv classes a part of their personal development plans. They enjoy the listening skills, the ability to read body language, and the ability think on their feet.

Improv is about communicating your story to non-finance colleagues in a way they understand and convincing them that this is the best approach. It’s also about how we interact with others, how our sense of empathy and how we stay in the moment. Neil Mullarkey, cofounder of Comedy Store Players, draws from decades of performing experience to teach professionals in improv.

He said that if you have more soft skills, it will be easier to tell your story and earn more respect for your technical abilities.

These are some skills that an improv workshop could help you hone.


Listening is the most important skill in improv. You must listen to what your fellow players have to say and then incorporate them into your response. If someone isn’t listening or trying to tell their own jokes it cuts off the scene.

Listening skills are essential to business-partnership. Listening is the best way to understand and help others make decisions.

Mullarkey said that, just like an improv sketch: “The more we can connect what we say with what others say, then the better,” he explained. This approach can be used in a business context to persuade, influence and build relationships.


Joel Vander Weele (CPA, CGMA) first attempted improv at the age of ten in a workshop hosted by Second City, a Chicago-based troupe. It was a great tool for development and he immediately recognized its potential. He now uses improv every day at Deloitte Consulting. You can learn to read and understand the responses of others by participating in improv workshops with them. Nonverbal cues like posture and facial expressions can tell a lot about a person’s personality. Vander Weele stated, “If you are doing a skit that you don’t know how to do, or that you’re not ready for, then you can see it in their body language.”

Similar clues can be found in the “one-sentence tale” exercise. Each participant will contribute a single sentence, in order to build a cohesive narrative. Vander Weele said that the story gets “pretty crazy” and that it is easy to see each person struggling to figure out their next sentence.

This helps you in later meetings. Vander Weele is able to see the discomfort of other participants and offer suggestions for where to go next. Meeting participants may come from different areas of Deloitte. Vander Weele stated that if a group has done some improv together, it will improve my ability to read the other person. It’s easier to work together if you understand the thoughts of the other person. Vander Weele explains how to find the right improv coach for your company or team.


Mullarkey has been a leader in many workshops for financial professionals, including accountants who are on the path of becoming partners and those who need to be more entrepreneurial.

Mullarkey stated that all finance professionals “arrive at a point where they need information, stories, engagement with people and use their technical know-how to convince them that this is what they should do”.

Vander Weele stated, “Being comfortable speaking in front of people, and quick on your feet, all the drills that are done in improv can help us all build our soft skills.”

Improv is a great way to improve your skills and be able to handle situations that you aren’t prepared for, such as a conversation in the hallway or an unexpected question following a presentation. You will be able to deal with any situation and appear credible rather than panic-stricken.

It helps to explore questions like, “How can we bring a financial perspective together with other department’s goals and objectives?” How can finance be a “yes, and” function?


Vander Weele believes that the most important benefit of the improv mentality for business is the principle “yes, and…”.

You accept an “offer”, or idea from your counterpart in improv. It might be “Let’s head to the beach.” You add to the offer by saying “Yes, we can take my new pet unicorn.” He would love to see the ocean. It doesn’t matter if you decline the offer, but it is important that you add another element to flesh out the idea.

Vander Weele stated that if you are having a conversation about a client, and they ask you to do an impossible task and want it done by Tuesday, the best thing to do is start your reply with a “yes” and. “Say “Yes” and we can discuss the details of your request so that we can make it on time. The conversation is cut short when you say, “No, that’s something we cannot do.” “Yes, and” keeps adding to it.

Vander Weele, who is based in Chicago at Deloitte Consulting brings in teams from Second City and Improv-Olympic regularly to help his staff with these skills.


Workshops can also be used as team-building activities (see sidebar “Games and Exercises You Might Try In An Improv Workshop” to see examples of what types of activities might be included in a workshop). Improv is not about competition, but collaboration. Mullarkey stated, “You can make others look good.” No matter their office status, everyone contributes ideas and suggestions. It is rewarding to see these ideas implemented. The process of creating a story together gives teams a sense pride. Although there is no pressure for laughter, it is often a good thing. Mullarkey says that many of the teams he works for have never had much time to laugh together.

Peter Margaritis CPA, CGMA, states that Improv encourages creativity and silences inner critics. Margaritis uses improv games to help companies solve problems. He said that bad ideas can be bridges to great ideas in improv. “No ideas can lead to nothing.” (See sidebar “Reasons To Embrace Improv”).


To help future leaders adapt to a changing world, business schools like Ashridge Executive Education, Cass Business School, Duke University, and Stanford University have included improv in their curriculum. Mike Bonifer, author, described improv in 21st-century technology. It allows one to be flexible, adaptable, spot opportunities and let go of what’s not working.

Keith Johnstone, a pioneer of Improv, stated that you must let go of your fear of being wronged, mad or bad in order to be a good improviser. People in business often struggle with the idea of “What will people think if I say X?” Mullarkey said that some ideas that seem crazy or unorthodox are those that can change the world.

People can deal with uncertainty and ambiguity by listening, exploring ideas, giving them a chance, accepting offers from others, and listening.

Businesses need to have a plan, a budget, and deadlines. But, there must be flexibility in that plan so that you can seize any opportunity that presents itself. Mullarkey said that you need to have a plan, but not be too rigid.

You might have an idea for the story, but you must discard it as soon as the other person has said it. He suggested that you take the idea seriously and not feel defeated if something you thought was a scene in a bookshop suddenly becomes a tailor’s. “There’s actually something quite interesting about the tailor’s scenario.” he said.

Or, I thought the meeting was about cutting, but it turns out that we will be discussing investments. Because the improviser knows that being with the other person is the best thing for them, he or she isn’t panicking. What are they saying to me? What can we do to find a win-win situation? Mullarkey said that the better we can connect what we say with what they say, then the better.”

The Ashridge class is all about “saying yes” to the chaos.

People feel pressured to choose one idea in order to be creative or strategic. This is a common mistake when discussing creativity and strategy. Many elements are involved when you begin an improv scene. It can be a bit disorganized. Mullarkey explained that in both cases, the focus will eventually get defined. However, this period of exploration and experimentation is crucial. It lets you know if what you ultimately decide on is solid.

Ashridge lecturers talk about leaders being in control, not controlling. People often think that the leader must know all and tell everyone what they should do. A great leader is one who looks to the future and is innovative. They know that sometimes the job of a leader is to ask the right question and provide staff with the least structure and the maximum autonomy.

Games and exercises you might try in an improv workshop

Alphabet game Two people receive a few elements to help them build a scene. These elements could include the nature of their relationship and reasons they might be having an argument. The two are invited to have a conversation. Each sentence must begin with the next letter of the alphabet.

One-sentence story Standing in a circle the group attempts to create a scene around a stimulus, such as a famous person or an object. Each participant adds one sentence to the narrative.

Last Word Said:Two people are having a conversation. Person B must start a sentence with person A’s last word, and vice versa. This exercise is very popular among his workshop participants, according to Peter Margaritis. It teaches us to pay attention to every word in a conversation, because sometimes the last words are the most important. And it is easy to overlook something crucial.

Participants must be able to focus, respond quickly to their counterparts’ comments, even if they are expecting something entirely different.

Reasons to embrace improv

  • You can play any character in a scene — an astronaut, a pirate or a ballerina. There are no limitations. Participation is open to all ages and abilities.
  • A few hours spent in an environment where the first thing you think of is the right answer for a demanding profession can be a great way to find relief and refreshment.
  • Look at for listings to find improv classes or groups in your area.

What to look for

Joel Vander Weele (CPA, CGMA) says he uses improv skills daily in his professional life at Deloitte Consulting. He explains what to look for in a trainer if you believe your team would benefit from an improv class:

  • It is important to assess the quality of the group. Talk to business professionals in your local area about the organizations, and look online for reviews.
  • Improv workshops can be customized to build rapport, storytelling, or team building. Talk to the provider about your needs and make sure the curriculum is focused on improv for business. Vander Weele stated that any workshop should contain a description of “yes and,” one-sentence stories, etc.
  • You might not find a professional improv group in your area. However, some providers will send trainers.

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