“The acceptance level has skyrocketed, partly because there are a lot of younger people who have had exposure to the major improv schools and have seen improv shows and have done improv in college,” says Ed Herbstman, cofounder of the Magnet Theater. “Now they’re making decisions about what to take their team to.”
Rebecca Waber, 30, leads a team of consultants at Innosight in Boston. She started taking improv classes for fun but immediately saw the work connection. “What you need to do in improv is listen closely to every word a scene partner is saying,” she says. “Everything’s moving so fast, you may have missed the most interesting thing. The audience may have heard it, and if you missed it you haven’t really driven the scene forward, you don’t know what to react to.” The boon comes in client meetings. “When you’re in a meeting with a client, you need to not only hear but deeply listen to everything.”
Waber also credits improv training with enhancing her presentation skills. “You need to be comfortable not only with objective facts but with emotion and expressiveness, and the emotional side of decisions and organizational dynamics is critically important to successful interactions,” she says. “It’s not necessarily easy for everyone to do both the cognitive and the emotional side, but it’s very important for a leader and consultant to have that expressive, emotional, vulnerability.”
Nithya Venkateswaran, 31, is a digital product manager for WeightWatchers. She heard about the Magnet Theater from a friend. “Initially I didn’t know what improv was, I just knew that it involved some kind of public speaking,” she says. “When you do improv and come back to the corporate world, you realize how many small things you thought were important don’t matter.”
In that respect, “yes, and” can be the antidote to workplace negativity. “There is safety in saying no,” says Herbstman. “What we do is say, ‘Let’s follow that idea for a moment. Let’s ‘yes, and’ just for a moment, to see where it goes.’” This improves communication by reducing barriers and increasing acceptance.
“When you’re the person saying yes to other people, they start to bring you their best ideas,” he says. “When you’re meeting things habitually with ‘yes, and,’ with an energy of agreement, you transform the way people perceive you.”
Andrews adds, “If people aren’t confident, they don’t contribute as much, so you lose. It’s like group writers’ block: You only toss your idea out there if it’s perfect.”
Of course, there are spoilsports, people who reject improv training because they think they don’t need it or it doesn’t apply to work. But according to Herbstman, “That washes away really fast, because they learn that this isn’t cleverness training or joke training. It’s really about the infrastructure of communicating and connecting.”
In fact, studies have shown that people can improve their communication skills and lower their anxiety with regular practice. Improv’s low-stakes training increases the likelihood that team members will feel comfortable communicating in a variety of work situations. “Yes, and” is the key.
“When you say yes to something and find a way to make it work, you actually are coming up with solutions,” says Andrews. “I believe there’s a longer-lasting satisfaction to saying yes and affirming things.”