Vancouver, BC, Canada
Wednesday 15th February 2017

At the beginning of the year, I outlined several objectives that I was looking to achieve during 2017.  Upon moving to Vancouver, I decided to seek out and register for improvisation comedy classes, with the intention of pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, improving my public speaking and communication capabilities and meeting some people in my new city.

After some careful research, I signed up with a company called Blind Tiger and committed to an intensive 20 hours of introductory training over a five week period.  In addition, the course involved one night on stage, putting into practice some of the skills we had learnt along the way.

Reflecting on the lessons assimilated during my introduction to improv, it became apparent that many of the teaching points that were covered in our classes actually mirrored coaching points that life coaches work on with their clients.

7 Lessons of Improv Comedy That Apply to Life

As such, here are seven lessons of improv comedy that can be applied in trying to live a better life:

1. Say "Yes"

The first rule of improv comedy is to always say "yes" to your colleagues offer.  In improv, an 'offer' is the verbal or physical action that the person you are jamming with delivers to initiate a new scene or change direction of the scene.  By saying "yes" and accepting their idea (despite it being potentially different to the concept you were formulating), you lay the foundation for positively exploring possibilities and opportunities.

In life, accepting an offer or invitation, even if the proposal isn't one you were expecting or would usually go along with, can open the door to possibilities and opportunities for growth, development and success.  Staying in your comfort zone and just waiting to get on board with the 'perfect' situations, can introduce severe limitations on your life.

2. Commit to Having Fun

It's a certainty that on occasions in improv, the idea you thought would be great, is greeted with tumbleweed.  For sure, during some of the games, the pressure of the situation will cause you to make a ridiculous mistake (a friend of mine even got her name wrong on one such occasion).  There's no doubt that you will misread signals, misjudge reactions and make decisions that transpire to be poor ones for the outcome of the scene you are acting out.

From the outset, in improv comedy you are taught that, whilst much of what you act out will be funny and well received, there are times you will fail.  But, if you fail when fully committed and wearing a smile on your face, the audience will laugh with you, enjoy the mistakes you make and forgive you, giving you permission to try to make them laugh the next time.

As I become more experienced in my personal and professional life, as much as I don't set out to fail, in accepting tough challenges, seeking to innovate and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, I realise that failure is not only inevitable, it's also imperative to learning and improving.  However, by committing to my personal development, giving my all to every project I commit to and  doing so in a positive manner, I realise that by being honest and acknowledging my mistakes (both internally and externally), I turn a failure into the stepping stone for my next success.  

I've observed time and again that those who stay safe, so as to minimise their failures, whilst excelling at highlighting the failures of others in a negative light, are the same people who never reach their potential or achieve real success.

Our relationships are no different.  Just as in improv, we misread signals, misjudge reactions and make decisions that transpire to be poor ones.  But in acknowledging that we are human and therefore not immune from making mistakes, those with compassion and a recognition of their own fallibility will accept our heartfelt apologies, forgive us and still appreciate us for our overall intentions to be a good friend, partner or colleague.  Dwelling on our flaws, blinds us and others to our valuable gifts and stunts the growth of our relationships painfully and unnecessarily.

3. Breathe and Stay Present

The natural response to fear and stress is to hold your breath.  Often, we don't even realise we are doing it.  In improv, when you step forward from the line and take centre stage, much of the time, you do so with an empty head and the hope that in that short journey, you will be graced by inspiration.  That can be a pretty nerve wracking experience.

Many of the games we play and exercises we repeat in improv warm-ups, focus on remembering to breathe and in doing so, staying present in the moment.  The temptation can be to try and think ahead, preparing a direction, but you are taught early on that this can narrow your outlook on where the scene can go.  It's better instead to stay open-minded, breathe and trust your instincts to come up with a suitable response as the situation unfolds.  It's remarkable how much more creative the brain is when you work on keeping your breath relaxed and rhythmical.

Fortunately, many of the skills I have learnt in practicing meditation and mindfulness, are useful in following this advice.  Further, my knowledge of neuroscience provides physiological reasons as to why this tactic works, which is related to the stress mediated release of cortisol limiting the creative capacity of the brain.

Routinely practicing mindfulness in our daily lives, improves the ability of our brains to manage the stressful stimuli that we can be exposed to in our working and private lives.  By staying in the moment, remembering to keep breathing and responding with less attachment to how challenging situations are playing out, helps us to avoid reacting in judgement to how reality has diverged from expectation, and in doing so we allow our training and preparation to guide us through.

4. Listen and Observe

When the pressure is on and an improv comedy scene is initiated, the temptation is to talk and act.  However, a key lesson I have learnt, is that by focussing more attention to listening to my partner and observing their physical offers, my scenes can flow better, and I can read the direction that my partner is already moving towards.  As such, the audience can follow the act more easily and the story is more consistent, whilst demonstrating less 'waffle' (where the two players struggle to get on the same page).

Too often in our relationships, we listen to respond, rather than listening to learn and in doing so, miss the message or information our friends, family members or colleagues are trying to convey.  In trying to be perceived as clever and always trying to come up with smart answers in the immediacy, we can cheat ourselves and others out of a valuable conversation.  

In my opinion, this phenomenon has only become more prevalent with the development of the instant gratification culture that the social media climate has generated.  Taking a lead from the previous lesson and learning to breathe and stay present during our interactions, would make us more appreciated conversationalists to those with whom we talk.

5. Initiate Confidently

When you step up to kick off a scene in improv comedy, you have to open with a bold assertion that helps your colleagues understand what direction you are going in and helps the audience quickly get a handle on the character, environment and situation that you're working to portray.  Uncertainty at this stage can cause indecision and a lack of commitment that will likely jeopardise the success of the scene.

Similarly, in life, our first interactions and introductions shape the first impressions that others make about us.  Demonstrating a reassuring self-confidence, enables others to build trust in our abilities more quickly and puts others at ease.  It can be a difficult skill to learn but with practice, one that will reward you many times over.

6. Portray Genuine Emotion

Building an authentic character in improv comedy demands a portrayal of appropriate emotions and a demonstration of suitable reactions to the situations that arise.  By investing in the emotional fabric of a character, the audience builds an affinity and bond to him or her.  Without substantial colour, the audience can remain unconvinced by the story being told.

More recently, the recognition that sharing your true character and displaying genuine emotion helps build trust in relationships and develop bonds between people.  In the recent past, authors preaching power techniques, such as Robert Greene, warned against displaying emotion and suggested such acts were a sign of weakness, thus giving an upper hand to those seeking to gain power in a relationship.  However, influencers such as Keith Ferrazzi cite more recent research suggesting that by acknowledging fallibility, demonstrating vulnerability and displaying happiness, we enable others to identify with our authenticity and relate to us.  

7. Be Consistent

Most of the time in improv comedy, you share a scene with at least one other person.  In doing so, you share the (invisible and imaginary) environment.  Subsequently, it is important for all those sharing the stage to pay attention to set consistency.  

For example, if one person walks through a door, it demands more of the audience's conscious thought to feed their imagination if the second person 'walks through' the same door but opens it the other way.  If one person gets a box out of a cupboard and the next replaces it but the 'cupboard' is at a different height, the effortless engagement of the spectators is disturbed.  Similarly, a character portrayed in an opening scene needs to have traits and a voice that remain true to the identity developed, if in a later scene he or she returns, played by either the same or a different improv comedian.

There are games we play in improv training to train our ability to copy and build an environment with your colleagues.

Away from the stage, behaving in a manner consistent with our values, beliefs and word enables others to build trust and rapport, as they experience our authenticity and integrity. 

In the glare of social media, and under the intense scrutiny of the tabloid press, indiscretions of consistency are soon detected and people, brands or organisations that act counter to the image they attempt to portray, or behave in a manner that contrasts the values they preach, are soon outed for the pretentious fakes they are.

To summarise, I can only suggest that by being able to execute the above skills in exemplary fashion, great improv comedians must, therefore, be great people and human beings that we should all look to as role models.  Mmm, or maybe there's a flaw in my conclusion!?!

Anyhow, I will leave the stage by voicing my thanks and appreciation to my improv comedy teacher, Amy, and classmates, Nat (aka Nelly), Rami, Ashu and Vinson...with a promise to join them again next semester.

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