Client and Student Interviews

Hoopla facilitator and teacher Liam Brennan interviewed a diverse range of Hoopla clients and students to ask how they’ve applied improv into their work life and businesses. Here’s what they had to say.

Erik Abrahamsson Founder and CEO at Digital Fineprint

Erik Abrahamsson: Founder and CEO at Digital Fineprint

Liam: Can you tell me a bit more about you and your work?

Erik: So I’m an entrepreneur, I started Digital Fineprint (or DFP) three years ago at University when I was doing my masters at Oxford. Before that I worked at Twitter. At Twitter we were using the platform not just to create the consumer product that we use to Tweet but also as enterprise products with the data itself when it became an indicator of market movements. So that’s what Twitter used to use back then, for hedge funds and banks. I wanted to start a company looking at similar data sources but in the instance of insurance instead.

I deliberately picked insurance because it’s one of the most conservative and traditional of industries and they haven’t really seen digital innovation happen. So every other industry has already made a move to go online but insurance hasn’t, so I wanted to start a company to help them do that. Which; for my sins, has become the challenge of a lifetime! Today we’re 25 people based in London working and with insurance companies, primarily in the UK but also some internationally.

Liam: What made you sign up for a Hoopla course?

Erik: I became aware of improv after watching the Oxford Imps while I was at University and I’d never seen anything like it before. Afterwards when I worked at Twitter, our CEO at the time had done improv and they organised classes for the people that worked in San Francisco. Unfortunately I wasn’t based in that office but I’d heard about it. After moving to London I found out that Hoopla Impro was very close to my house, so I started going and watching. Being an entrepreneur is stressful so it was my own personal therapy this year to go somewhere and laugh.

That lead me to trying it out and asking myself, “Could I try this?”. It was nerve wracking to say the least but I did want to give it to myself as a kind of personal challenge. I signed up to a course at the same time as one of my best friends. We studied together at Hong Kong University many years ago and she wanted to get better at culture references and getting to use English more professionally. This was sort of the case for me as well but also just to have fun and see how it would impact my level of communication.

Liam: How has improv impacted your professional life?

Erik: It gives you two things that I’d like to point out. First of all; even though improv is theoretically about speaking and performing, the key skill you need to develop is to listen and understand. I found this to be much more important than the actual speaking. It’s made me a lot more mindful of the importance of being able to absorb the things that are happening around me and being able to listen more intently and actively. So it’s helping me to become a better listener (as people around me, my friends, colleagues and my girlfriend tell me, so that’s good).

The second part is that it gives you this innate confidence that you can go into any meeting situation and be able to communicate with everyone in the room. You’ve already been practising that in stressful circumstances by going up on stage with no script and trying to be funny. Which was nerve wracking the first time as I’m sure you can appreciate! But after doing that that you feel like you can conquer any room. So I’ve been inside of boardrooms full of executives from major insurance companies and without any hesitation started to woo them with our tech. So it’s definitely helped me pitch for investment and different partnerships.

Liam: Why is listening so important to improv and work?

Erik: In regular life we are seeing more of a trend towards mindfulness, focus and limiting distractions in a room. I think that has lead us to becoming better listeners.

There was an amazing scientific study; it was so simple, they paired up strangers and got them to sit at a table for 30 minutes and they would just have a conversation. On the table there would be one of two objects, there would either be a notebook or a cellphone that the participants weren’t allowed to touch. Afterwards they surveyed the participants and were asked to give an assessment of the other person. They were asked whether they found the other person to be friendly, engaged and whether they themselves enjoyed the conversation.

The impact of when there was a cellphone on the table was huge. There was a massive decrease in the enjoyment of the conversation when they got distracted. Even if there’s just a cellphone to look at, it distracts people and they don’t listen as well. As a result of listening less, people don’t like you as much.

So in so many areas of our life; in relations, business, anything, removing distractions and listening actively and intently is extremely important. It makes us like each other more.

Liam: Any final thoughts?

Erik: I recently had a conversation with a group of entrepreneurs about burn-out, which is a real risk when you’re starting a company. I find that going to an improv class or show and just laughing and having that release of serotonin has become my inoculation against burnout. I can’t recommend it enough, it’s just so powerful.

The cool thing with the British culture of improv is that you can go there by yourself and become part of a community. I’ve never found a community that is just so welcoming. Everybody goes there to have fun and that’s the entire shared experience. I’ve never seen anything like it. If I didn’t have that, I don’t think I would have the stamina and emotional fortitude to be running a company at this stage. So I definitely recommend it.

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