I improvise comedy for a living. You’ve probably seen people like me on TV shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? We go on stage in groups of four or five and try to make an audience laugh, but with absolutely no script whatsoever. The audience shout out suggestions and from that point we are on our own, playing games and making up sketches. It’s hard to think of a more uncertain or anxiety-inducing situation. But believe it or not, I go on stage in a state of calm confidence. A confidence won both through experience and by the internalisation of some simple rules of thumb that allow me to dampen my fears and find my creativity. I’ve used the same tools off-stage to feel less anxious and more empowered in my day-to-day life, both in my relationships and at work.
You might be thinking: Hang on, what can stage improvisation teach us about life? Afterall, life isn’t a comedy show. And that’s obviously true! But isn’t most of our life improvised? We’re improvising in conversations, we’re improvising when we pursue new projects, we improvise when our train is cancelled, and so on. My world doesn’t just offer us a useful metaphor to think of these challenges in a new way, it also offers a simple and proven methodology to tackle a world of change with poise and equanimity. To be confident despite the curve balls thrown at us by life. With that in mind, here are five tips from improv you can use right now.
- Remember it’s not about you.
When I first got into improv, I assumed it was all about what you say. I thought the pressure was on me to be as clever and funny as possible: it was suffocating. What I would soon learn is that improv actually begins with listening. All your focus should be all on the other person, on supporting their choices and trying to make them look good. We often say, ‘If you want to get out of your head, then you’ve got to get into something else.’ That something else is out scene partner. If you’re feeling anxious, it’s because you’re focussed on what you’re saying or doing. Try instead to listen to the other person. We’re often not good at this: we don’t listen, we wait to speak. Pre-planning what we are going to say in our head. Instead, stay present and listen right to the end of what the other person is saying.
- Let yourself be obvious.
In social situations we often put pressure on ourselves to be interesting and original. No wonder they make us anxious! Improvisers focus instead on being obvious. This is about simply saying what is obvious to you in the moment. You’ll find not only does this get the conversation flowing, but that what is obvious to you is often not obvious to other people. So, you sound interesting by accident! Being obvious can be as simple as saying, ‘Your necklace is pretty.’ Your conversational partner can now react to this, (‘Oh this, yeah, I bought it last week,’) and you’re off. People who sound fluent in conversations are often just those people who let themselves be obvious.
- Accept and build off what you’re given
You might think: Ok, being obvious can help me start conversations, but what do I do now? What if I can’t think of anything to say next? Improvisers use a tool that helps here: we try to say ‘Yes, and.’ This is about listening to the last thing that was said and building on that. So, they say, ‘Oh this, yeah, I bought it last week,’ and you respond: ‘You bought it last week? Where from?’ Again, another obvious thing to say, but it simply accepts and builds off the last idea they shared and keeps the conversation flowing with almost zero effort.
- Remember the goal is not perfection.
We often think in life-and especially when we communicate-that our goal is to be perfect. Not only is that unrealistic, it’s also not how we view other people. To be more confident, you need to get a heathier relationship with your mistakes: it’s how we react to them that’s important. As Miles Davis once said, ‘It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note-it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.’ Improvisers treat their mistakes as gifts. When you mess up ask yourself, how can I use this?
- It’s not on you to have the answer.
In meetings or conversations, the pressure isn’t on you to bring the bring the idea or solve everything: it is a team effort. We have a phrase in improv that gets at this: Bring a brick, not a cathedral. We are trying to build a metaphorical cathedral in the show: a big, complex, beautiful thing. But we get there by bringing just one brick at a time. All you have to do when it’s your turn to speak is to focus on adding one small thing. Think of your job as not to be the smartest person in the room but simply to keep the energy going. That quietens your inner critic and helps you contribute.
There are no wrong choices, only choices and better choices, but you can make ANY choice work if you give it heart
The stakes are always far lower than your brain is telling you they are. Best advice Scott Oswald has ever given me!
I remember Monkey Toast first class shows… advice that helped was to ‘trust first’, put your foot out even before you know what’s going to happen and focus on supporting your team.
Happy High Status is the way most great leaders endow themselves and others in life
Everyone’s winging it. This goes for impro and for life.
Focus all your attention on your partner, that way there’s no space in your mind for self doubt.
Max Dickins is author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work which is out now. He is co-director of improvisation training company Hoopla! Hoopla run improv classes, shows and corporate training.