Learn from improv–it’s not about you!

There are some basic rules in improv comedy that more of us should apply to the workplace!

I know when you think of improv you have visions of Robin Williams or Whose Line Is It Anyway? They may make it look easy, but there is a lot of practice and training required, along with some quick wits.

Some of the rules you are taught when you explore improv comedy are rules we should apply in the workplace as well. Here’s one of my favorites:

You look good if you make your partner look good

DSCF6051If you didn’t watch that Whose Line is it Anyway clip, watch it now. Notice how Colin & Ryan set each other up?  Neither one is trying to steal the scene. When they set up Wayne to sing a song they give him song styles that play to his strengths. Fans of Whose Line will know Wayne is good at  songs in the style of Tina Turner, Prince, and Sammy Davis Jr, the rest of the cast are fully aware of his go to characters and give him every opportunity they can to work them into a song.  If it’s Brad singing, they will throw him a B52 number, because he does a great impression of the lead singer of the B52s. They know that if the song works, the skit works.  An improv skit relies on the whole team and when one team member tries to control the entire scene,  hog the stage  it falls apart.  If a team member sets up a team member to fail the entire scene fails and they look bad too.

How does this apply at work? Imagine you are doing a joint presentation with a co-worker. During the presentation a demo isn’t working and an audience members asks a question that is the area of expertise of your co-worker.

Let’s suppose you are focused on making yourself look good:

Maybe when your co-workers starts their part of the presentation you tune out, maybe you are reading ahead on the slides to review your upcoming topic, or you are having a side bar conversation with an audience member when your co-presenter’s demo goes wrong. They end up spending 5 minutes with the audience watching as they try to fix it. Your co-worker is getting flustered and the audience is getting frustrated. Now later an audience member asks you a question when you are presenting, you think you know the answer but get something slightly wrong.  Your co-presenter who is an expert in that area realizes you’ve made a mistake in your explanation and either has to correct you in front of the audience, or leave the audience with misinformation.

What happens if each of you is trying to make your co-presenter look good?

You are paying attention as they present, nodding and looking attentive. When they start having trouble with their code demonstration, you can give them time to fix it by discussing a related topic while they dig through their code to get it fixed or restart the demo, or perhaps engage the audience to help out pointing out that live code demos are always a challenge (my go-to joke is “the number of typing mistakes you make is directly proportional to the number of people watching you type”). The audience is focused on your discussion not the struggling co-presenter, or they are sympathetic to the co-worker and trying to help out a fellow coder. Later, when you get a question on a topic you know is their area of expertise, you pass the question to your co-worker who provides a complete and accurate answer.

For the record, I think of myself as a pretty good presenter, but I have been guilty of the acts described in scenario one. We all slip from time to time. Hopefully this post will help keep me honest in my future presentations!

Think of it this way: instead of trying to be more successful on your own, you are trying to be more successful as a team. A succesful team can accomplish much more than a successful individual. How well would Whose Line is It Anwyay skits work if there was only one actor on the stage?

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