Improvise Your Way Through Work

The scene:

Job interview. A cramped office with no windows. A large painting of a grapefruit leers down at you from the wall behind the desk.

The florescent lights buzz overhead with a little clicking noise as a determined, but ill-witted moth continues to plunge himself into its side over and over. The man sitting across the desk from you looks wrinkled in the harsh light—the lines under his eyes, along his buttoned up shirt. He taps a pen on the table watching you expectantly. Your eyes are on the grapefruit, you’re listening to the moth. You can’t seem to find anything to say to his question:

If you had to use a movie to describe your life, what movie would it be?

You’d studied the company, the mission statement, each and every employee’s bio page. Johnson across the table from you, for example, is the head of the department. Three kids, a wife, and a cocker spaniel. He likes to go for early morning jogs—though by the looks of him, it’s been a slow summer. You know all this.

But for the life of you, you can’t formulate an answer to the question.

So you just say, with a nervous grin, “Ah, I don’t really know that many movies… But I did have a question about the office management software…”

And that’s how you lose the job; lose the audience. Why? Because now Johnson knows how you perform under pressure, how you come up with creative solutions to tough problems, and how you communicate. Basically, not very well.

I bring up this example because I want to illustrate just how very applicable improv skills can be in everyday life—particularly at work.

Improv teaches you to think on your feet, stay present, stay focused, and not freak out. Of course there is no right answer to this question—but there is one wrong one, and that is the freezing up, mumbling something, and not playing the game.

A big time block.

In these situations, it is important to remember the beauty that is “Yes, And.” If your boss, co-worker, interviewer, or even employee asks you something that you’re not prepared for, stay calm, stay present, and “Yes, And.” It’s also important to go with your gut in these situations. In this interview example, had your brain been saying something like “Well, at the moment I feel a bit like I’m in Casino Royale,” go with it! It’s all about keeping things moving, keeping the conversation flowing, and just playing the game (PS- If you’re squeamish, don’t click on that link.)

Here are some other delightful ways that improv can help you out at work:

The Situation: Half way through a presentation, you realize that your coworkers are barely paying attention, and your boss looks unimpressed. You’re in danger of completely fumbling the pitch.

What to do: Engage the room by revisiting the questions that your presentation was meant to address, and connect it with what your audience wants and needs. Remember, in an improv scene (or in any good story, really), it is important to ask yourself why do we care about this? If nobody has emotional stakes yet, chances are, nobody cares.

The situation: Your boss asks you to organize monthly happy hours with the office to improve company morale, but he only gives you an empty conference room and few resources to make it a good time. Nobody is really talking and most people are just watching the clock.

What to do: Acknowledge the situation honestly and don’t be afraid to ask for support from your co-workers. Rather than accept that you’re the dork that’s throwing a lame office party quietly, acknowledge that you’re the dork throwing a lame office party out loud. Make a joke of it, call it what it is, and then ask your co-workers to help you not make it as lame as possible. It’s like in an improv scene when something goes a bit awry—there’s a heckler, someone trips and falls, etc.—you use that. Say Yes And, laugh at it, and keep going.

The situation: Your boss presents the office with a business strategy that’s outdated, uninformed, or just plain awful. You have a much better idea, but office politics make it difficult to just shut you’re your boss’s plan.

What to do: Yes, And your boss. You should try out both ideas. Sometimes good improv involves trying multiple things at the same time—some fail and some succeed, but you keep trying. And when one thing fails, don’t forget to take your big “failure bow,” laugh it off, and move on.

One of my favorite quotes by Oscar Wilde: Life is too important to be taken so seriously. In improv, in work, and in life, let these words be your motto. Now go have some fun.


Guest writer, Natalie Grigson writes a weekly column on spirituality for BeyondChron and is a proud student of Merlin Works Improv in Austin, Texas.


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