Getting to yes, and: Improv tips for client service people

Inspired by Tina Fey’s memoir “Bossypants,” I took an improv class at the People’s Improv Theater in early 2013. What I learned directly applied to my day job as an account manager at an agency.

For someone who avoids most situations where I need to perform (except for karaoke, obvs), the challenge of taking even a Level 0 improv class both excited and terrified me.

After surviving the first class, however, I started to notice the similarities between improv and real life, particularly at work. Although my improv career was short-lived, I’m still thinking about its principles and would like to share the four most relevant lessons for account folks here.

1. Yes, and

“Yes, and” is the fundamental “rule” in the game of improv that you’ve probably heard if you have any improv or comedy-minded friends. The rule communicates two things: (1) accept what your partner has put forth; and (2) add something of your own. It’s impossible to advance a scene if you don’t accept — or “yes” — your partner’s idea (the “offer,” in improv parlance); the scene will just end up being a mess of people not agreeing on anything and rattling off non sequiturs, and it’s positively painful to watch.

How many times have you dismissed an idea, either out-of-hand or with the equally lethal “yes, but?” If you’re in accounts, of course you’re constantly mindful of the logistics and rules, but it’s hard to get to “awesome” without some suspension of limitations so creativity can run freely. Avoid bringing up any logistics in the beginning and just let people toss around ideas — there’ll be plenty of time later to deal with the “real world.”

The second part — the “and” — is also important: it reminds you that you have a responsibility to add something. Contributing your own ideas and participation is not only something you need to permit yourself to do, it’s required to move the scene (or “project,” in our world) forward. Another way to look at it is figuring out what the next step is. Think small — your contribution just has to nudge the discussion or project forward.

2. Make statements

There’s nothing more frustrating that those “I don’t know — what do you want to do?” types of conversations that get batted back and forth; after a couple of rounds, you couldn’t care less and you finally make a decision — any decision — just so you can finally be done with the whole thing. Improv avoids this conversation badminton by mandating that you “make statements” instead of asking your partner endless questions and putting the burden on them to make up the scene. Instead of expecting your colleagues to come up with ideas and solve problems, put forth your own ideas and solutions. Do research or prep work, and give yourself a pep talk even, but train yourself to resist the question reflex.

“Make statements” also translates to “make decisions,” especially for account people. In business, Robert Kulhan, professor at Duke’s Fuqua B-school and avid improv performer, remarks, “We get bogged down in analysis paralysis, or just the pressure of being right… But if you just make a decision you’ll have room to adapt and react and get it to work within the parameters you need.” Neglecting to make the call, take the next step, etc. stalls the project and makes you the bottleneck. I also like to remember one of Facebook’s wall-mounted mottos, “Done is better than perfect,” when I need inspiration to make a “statement.”

3. Listen

Like many improv n00bs, I spent the better part of my early scenes thinking about what I was going to say, only to realize I had no idea what my partner just said. A few classes later, I began concentrating on listening to my partner, and not surprisingly, I heard more of the offers in our conversation and could build an engaging scene just from that. I was amazed to realize how much I’d been missing. Listening well is another way to “yes” your partner in both the improv sense and the personal sense. True listening demonstrates that you actually care about what the person is saying, and that makes the person feel good and builds trust. It’s certainly not an easy skill, but few can argue with the value of building trust with a client or a coworker.

One way to practice active listening is to “mirror,” i.e., literally repeat what your what your partner/client/colleague just said. Not only will you buy yourself a few extra moments to figure out what to say next, but, as improv guru Billy Merritt notes (#25), “both of you will know what’s important in the conversation you are having.” Letting the other person know you’re on the same page keeps the relationship strong and can save you time from figuring out what you missed later on.

4. Make others look good

Think of this last idea as getting an assist in soccer/hockey/basketball — you’re facilitating a play unselfishly so your teammate can bring home the score. Turns out, we have the same opportunities in improv AND in work. As Merritt points out (#19), successful improv is more due to “players playing to each other and to the scene at hand” than to the plot itself. The skillful player knows his partners’ strengths and weaknesses; consequently, she sees the opportunities in the scene for that particular person and sets them up to succeed.

Similarly, good account people identify both what each person on a team does particularly well and what a specific project requires, and then she assigns work accordingly. There’s something beautiful about enabling people to do their best work — and getting out of their way — that leads to a successful project and happy satisfied colleagues.

This post originally appeared on the Renegade blog.