The Business Case for Improv Training: Leadership, Public Speaking, Innovation

Our agile marketing team has found great benefit from training in improv, but a recent improv immersion made it even clearer that anyone preparing to speak at an event, managing a team, struggling with people skills, or trying to encourage creative ideas that move your business forward should be doing improv as much as they can.

the business case for improv

Redball Speaks recently hosted a day-long workshop that pushed the boundaries of my personal comfort, while making my next all-company presentation seem like a much less daunting experience.

There were four areas we investigated during the workshop; play, mindfulness, breathing, and vulnerability. What we gathered from these areas helped us to think on our feet, be more open to connection, and communicate more authentically.

better business through improv

Everyone freezes except for one person. You have to negotiate as a group who the one moving will be, without talking.


The Importance of Play in Business

As adults, play is not something we generally value as much as we did when we were kids. Nowadays, we get caught up in the seriousness of our daily tasks and responsibilities.

Many of us believe that we need to suppress our playful sides in order to fulfill a role or meet the expectations of others.

This belief is completely inaccurate. Play is one of the key factors in building communication skills, confidence and supporting business innovation.  

Forbes reports:

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.

improving communication with improv training

Passing an imaginary ball to each other

Forgetting Behaviors That Stifle Creativity

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO gave a great Ted Talk on the connection between creative thinking and play.

Tim explains that it is possible to be a serious, well respected adult and playful as well. Children are constantly moving in and out of play and it’s important that, as adults, we do the same.

We need to make an effort to forget the behaviors we learned as adults that get in the way of creative thinking.

For most of us, if you ask us to have a brainstorm session, you’ll find that we tend to edit our ideas as we are speaking or even thinking them. We strive to be the one with the best or most effective idea.

Kids, on the other hand, don’t edit their ideas. They are open to exploring all possibilities, even if they aren’t the best ones. The beauty in this is that there is no sense of limitation or judgement. Ideas are free to flow.

There’s no room for evaluation in play and creativity. Evaluation should come later. That should be true in a brainstorm meeting, and it’s forced to be true in improv.

playfulness and business

Imaginary photo shoot where anything goes

Fostering Innovation & Creativity

We’re too smart for our own good as adults. We’ve learned so much from life experience that we usually don’t bother investigating anything that we’ve already labeled as known, like a chair.

It’s really an evolutionary survival skill we’ve developed; it allows for us to use brain energy on other things that might be more important to our survival and ignore the things that aren’t.

While useful, this skill causes a bump in the road when we want to think outside of the box. In the business world, you’ve got to be innovative if you want to survive. This demands for us to then ask our brains to work in a different way.

One of the best ways to do this is through play: asking your mind to explore what was previously thought to be known as though it were unknown.

For example, can you think of multiple uses for a chair that doesn’t include the obvious?

creativity unleashed

Playing off of each other to build a group photo

The Business of Mindfulness

With so many things on our plates these days, it’s difficult to stay in the moment. Unfortunately, if we want to be thought leaders, amazing speakers, and strong collaborators, it’s vital to practice staying present — especially when things get stressful.

Stress can come from various sources, but it can often result from anticipating the future or focusing too much on the past. When you are completely focused on the present moment, you are better able to respond to any difficult business situation that comes your way. You are also making yourself fully available to those around you.

It’s easy to stay present when you are having fun. It’s a practice to stay present when things get nerve wracking. It’s important to have tools, like improv, that can help you, rather than leaving your state of presence to the mercy of your environment.

If you speak at events, you’ll find that presence can be extremely powerful. Staying in the present moment can help you to counteract nerves since it encourages you to focus only on what’s immediately in front of you. It will also make you a more engaging speaker.

When you’re fully present on stage and responding to your audience, they will feel this and be more likely to engage with you and take in what you are saying. When you’re too much in your head and speaking from the perspective of wanting to impress people, your audience will feel this and be less likely to listen.

In our mindfulness exploration, we moved around the room, we were asked to notice colors, details on the walls, the people around us, and the sounds from the street.

freedom to explore new ways of thinking

Exploring the space around us

We moved in ways that allowed us to explore the entire space of the room.

It was like a freestyle yoga class. It might have looked unusual to any onlooker, but allowing ourselves to forget how we may have looked to outsiders, to take up as much or as little space as we wanted, and to move as quickly or as slowly as we wanted, helped our minds to focus on the present moment and tune into what is happening now.

moving to new places

Focusing on moving in ways we don’t normally move

Of course this isn’t something you’ll be able to do around the office when you’re having a chaotic day (you might get some funny looks), but consider taking moments here and there to observe the details of your desk, what your coworker is wearing or how they are feeling.

If you’re working directly with customers, you’ll provide a much better customer experience if you are fully present. When your customers feel seen and heard, they’ll be more likely to return.

Tuning into your breathing can also help to bring you into the here and now.

Powerful People Have Relaxed Breathing

The first thing that suffers when you are feeling any sort of stress is your breathing.

Caroline Goyder, Founder of The Gravitas Method, points out how the most powerful person in the room has the most relaxed breathing pattern.

If you’d like to increase your sense of confidence and mindfulness, then check in with yourself throughout the day and see if your breathing is shallow.

It’s important to consciously breathe deeply, as this helps to keep your nervous system calm and allows for you to think clearly.

stretching your thinking

We were asked to move however we wanted to move and tune into our breathing

While we moved through our mindfulness exploration, we tuned into our breathing.

If an activity made us nervous or stressed, we were asked to continue focusing on breath.

Since we were often speaking and performing in front of each other, there were many times when our breathing got away from us because we felt vulnerable.

Vulnerability Is Your Strength as a Leader & Collaborator

Brene Brown, founder and CEO of The Daring Way, states that vulnerability is allowing yourself to be completely seen and whole-hearted in your actions. In her Ted Talk, she mentions that in order to be vulnerable, “it takes courage to be imperfect.” You need “compassion to be kind to yourself first and then to others”. Then you have “connection as a result of authenticity”.

Since most of us like to control and perfect things, including ourselves, it’s difficult to let our guards down and let others see that we might not be as put together as we pretend.

Vulnerability is uncomfortable.

It’s uncomfortable for everyone.

It means embracing a situation fully, even though there are no guarantees as to what may happen.

This is necessary for creating authentic relationships, with not just your friends and family, but with your team, your customers, and an audience you are speaking to. It’s impossible to have a real connection with a projected perfect image. Nobody can relate to that because nobody is perfect.

Vulnerability is also necessary to fully progress in your career. So many people don’t take chances because it makes them feel vulnerable. So many people don’t get up and speak even though they have something to say because they don’t want to be seen.

Improv is a great way to practice getting more comfortable with vulnerability and to start opening the door to the possibilities on the other side of it.

always ready to perform

Performing on-the-spot songs for each other

Getting up and singing in front of people makes most of us feel completely exposed.

it's ok to feel exposed

It’s amazing the creativity you can come up with when you don’t have time to plan

We each stood up and faced our fears with a song.  We were given a brief story, and then had to perform a song we made up about the story, completely spur of the moment.

time to really listen

Tuning into your partner and saying the same thing at the same time is challenging but helpful in building connection.

Looking into someone’s eyes, really focusing on what they are saying and mimicking their words can also make people feel exposed. We practiced this with our partners, laughed at how silly we felt, but also realized how much this exercise encouraged us to tune into each other.

Rebecca Waber, a consultant from Boston, reported to Forbes that this type of deep listening is invaluable during her client meetings: “When you’re in a meeting with a client, you need to not only hear but deeply listen to everything.”

listening and hearing when communicating

Even our facilitator couldn’t hold it together during our performance. When we all tuned into each other, saying the same phrases together, there was a hilarious energy in the room that was palpable.

To perform as a group, whether in theatre or as a marketing team, it’s crucial to have vulnerability amongst members.

Our task was for each of us to say one of the three given phrases continuously. We couldn’t overlap each other. We could only say things at the same time or just after someone finished.

We created a moment that was so funny, even our facilitator couldn’t hold it together. We weren’t trying to be funny, we were just working together, listening to each other and for the right time to chime in.

Just think of the things we could accomplish with our teams if we could all function at this level in the office; no fear of judgement, completely listening to each other, tuning into the moment, and working in harmony.

Powerful Leaders Play

Speaking, managing a team, and moving a company forward requires strong communication and leadership skills.

The most grown up thing we can do as leaders is to bring back our child-like tendencies to play. Playing allows creative ideas to flow, helps us to connect with others, authentically express ourselves, and laugh while we’re doing it.

Playing reminds us to let go of rigidity and the need to be in control.

When you are playing improv games, there’s no planning, just responding to whatever the moment brings.

In this state of mind, you are communicating confidently, creatively, and in a way that others can relate to because you’re not projecting perfection to hide who you really are.

When you’re open to authentic connection, you increase the sense of trust amongst your coworkers.

When your team trusts you, they feel safe to share creative ideas. Creative ideas lead to thought leadership and innovation.

express yourself

Completely expressing ourselves in our imaginary photoshoot


Thank you to our amazing facilitators: Meridith Grundei, Sam Elmore, and Arielle Nobile.

Photos courtesy of Barb Colombo


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About the Author:

Heidi Haskell

Heidi is a content marketer for MarketerGizmo and SurveyGizmo. She has a B.A. in Psychology and is always intrigued by neuroscience and anything that drives behavior. She is an appreciator of yoga, improv, and meaty marketing content. If she didn’t have to work for a year, she’d go study yoga with Ana Forrest and Shiva Rea.You can connect with her on Twitter @SurveyYogini.

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