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.

Stephen Wan Policy Civil Servant

Stephen Wan: Policy Civil Servant

Liam: Can you tell us a bit about your work?

Stephen: I’m a policy civil servant, which means my job involves advising the Government on different policy ideas to reach their objectives. It involves bringing together a lot of evidence, analysis and thinking about trade-offs between competing priorities to reach a considered view on what course of action the Government should take. In practice, that usually involves a lot of meetings with other civil servants and stakeholders to present and discuss views, drafting and writing policy papers and e-mails, and presenting to senior officials and Ministers on what the options are.

Liam: How has improv helped your work life?

Stephen: I’d say improv has really helped my work life in three key ways. Firstly being obvious and testing assumptions. In improv, it’s really important to be ‘obvious’ to ensure that you, your scene partner, and the audience all know what’s going on, and can use that as the foundation for moving a scene forward. In the complex world of policy-making, as a civil servant it’s even more important to make sure everyone is on the same page and using a shared set of assumptions.

For example, if a policy costs £100m, it’s amazing how often it gets interpreted in different ways (e.g. is that £100m over 1-year, over 5-years etc). Improv has really helped me to develop the skill set to really test other people’s views and hear what people are actually saying – so questions like “So what I’m hearing is that…” which are commonly used in improv scenes are also surprisingly helpful in a policy context!

Secondly, being collaborative. In improv, you can’t create everything on your own, it’s all about working together with your scene partner. Similarly, policy-making is at its best when it takes on board a wide range of views and perspectives, and uses that to strengthen the different proposals. Improv has helped me develop the kind of attitude towards accepting others’ contributions and thinking about how I can build on them – and especially to react to them ‘in the moment’. For example, I was presenting to a Minister on a set of proposals, when the Minister came back with a completely left-field idea that no-one knew what to do with. However, I was able to come back quickly on that idea, show that I listened and understood where the Minister was coming from – not dissimilar to how you’d manage a left-field offer from an improv partner!

And thirdly and finally, being able to tell a story. In improv, you learn how to tell a story effectively and build it together, even though you’re usually piecing it one bit at a time. Similarly, in the world of policy-making, narrative heuristics are just as important to getting a policy right as the substance of the policy itself. Now, when I draft policy advice, I definitely feel my improv instincts of trying to tell the simplest story possible (not getting lost in the meandering detail that sometimes one word at a time stories can become!) kicking in. For example, how do you tell the story of the policy of education in England over the past 30 years? That’s something I’m grappling with now, but I definitely feel more confident telling something that’s understandable now than I did before my improv training.

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