Imagine you are on a stage, in front of a packed audience. The lights go up. Your heart is pounding because you know that you have nothing prepared. You have no lines, no directions, and no cues. The show must go on… so you make it all up. This may seem like a nightmare to some, but this is what I do for fun.
Whenever I tell people that I perform improvised comedy (commonly known as “improv”), they always ask the same things: “How do you make up those scenarios on the spot?” or “You practiced some of those lines before, right?” The truth is that improv comedy shows are exactly what they promise to be: They are made up on the spot and no dialogue is pre-prepared, so each time you see an improv show, it is the one and only time that exact show will ever be performed.
Both career improvisers and nutrition professionals have found that practicing this comedic art-form can help them become better communicators and collaborators. Tom Yorton, CEO of communications for Second City (perhaps the most famous improv theater), puts it well: “Working without a script, creating something out of nothing, working in teams, co-creating solutions with input from the marketplace – all that’s improvising.” Sound familiar? It turns out that in the professional world, communications, and in life in general, we are always improvising.
Although participants in an improv show do not operate off of a script, they are well-versed in the principles that make the show successful. By learning and embracing these principles, anyone can become more efficient communicators at work and in our daily lives. For example:
1. “Yes, and”
This is the most important principle of improv. To create an interesting scene, you need both agreement and collaboration. In an improv scene, “yes, and” means that you agree with whatever your scene partner says, and then you add something.
“Yes, and” is a great tool for brainstorming. When brainstorming, you want to get all ideas out on the table because you never know which will be the most fruitful. The improv principle of “yes, and” helps us to suspend judgment, so that all ideas get equal consideration during the brainstorming process. This principle also fosters teamwork and collaboration within an organization. It not only encourages everyone to pitch in, but it also helps ensure that everyone’s contributions are appreciated and respected.
2. Listening and Reacting
Mastering the art of improv is all about honing your listening skills. To make a great scene, you need to be in the moment, listening and reacting to everything that your scene partner is saying or doing. This focus on listening and reacting translates well to nutrition communications, as it facilitates more effective discussions and helps to make interactions more productive.
Improv is also a great tool for nutrition counselors who are working with clients one-on-one. The listening skills that improv teaches help you to better empathize with your client and build rapport more quickly.
(Images: Sanders, right, at an improv event)
3. “Follow the Fun”
At the beginning of every improv scene, there are an infinite number of directions in which the scene could go. It takes a lot of skill and practice to be able to choose a direction and stick with it. Generally, improvisers choose to “follow the fun.” This means focusing on ideas that will not only be more enjoyable to act out now, but will also provide opportunities for better comedy later on.
In the professional world, this is known as strategic decision-making. Organizations have limited resources, so oftentimes they are faced with the difficult task of choosing the programs or functions on which to concentrate their resources. Learning improv can help us prepare to make these tough decisions more efficiently. This is because when we practice improv, we train our brains to see the potential outcomes of our decisions and choose a path of action. For example, a nutrition professional may be charged with choosing a community where a nutrition program will be implemented. Learning the principles of improv (and subsequently strategic decision-making skills) can help that nutrition professional to not only to envision the long-term effects of his or her decision, but also to stay focused on the short-term steps needed to make the program a success.
Whether you want to become a better communicator, conquer a fear of public speaking, or even just try out a fun new hobby, improv classes offer a fun venue for practicing techniques and learning new communication skills that can be applied to many food and nutrition disciplines. Through improv, thousands of comedians, businesspeople, educators, and nutrition professionals alike have transformed their lives and work habits with two simple words: “yes, and.”
Liz Sanders, MPH, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian from Carrboro, North Carolina. She recently completed her Masters in Public Health and received her Nutrition degree from the University of North Carolina. In Fall 2013, Liz interned with the IFIC Foundation and engaged the staff in many helpful principles of improv.