3 Lessons from Improv Comedy

What do Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have in common? Aside from being accomplished comedians, they’re also former members of The Second City, a Chicago based improv theater club.

I got to spend a day with The Second City’s professional development team, learning how to integrate key improv skills into my work and everyday life.

If you ever get a chance to take a class from this legendary organization, don’t hesitate to do so. You won’t regret it! In the meantime, here are the 3 key lessons I took away from my time with The Second City:

1. Bring a Brick, Not a Cathedral

Many times we walk into collaborative projects armed with unyielding ideas and expectations — effectively closing ourselves off to others’ input. That may work if you’re Brittney, but not if you’re N-Sync. And the vast majority of us are not solo acts but rather members of professional collectives working together to get things done. So it’s important to value every member’s input by coming to the table ready to collaborate.

We must learn to do our part while also leaving room for others to do theirs. Instead of bringing a finished castle, come with only a brick. The act of taking everyone’s unique contributions and building them one upon another tends to produce results far better than the constructs of any one individual.

2. Try To “Yes and . . .” Everything

Sometimes good things can happen when we temporarily turn off the critical part of our brains and attempt to love all proposed ideas. Instead of rushing to judge someone’s contribution as good or bad, consider running with it for a minute. You may just end up running into something great in the process.

I imagine if someone surveyed the public in the mid 1920’s on whether or not we should create a cartoon whose main character would be a mouse, there would be a lot of no’s. Surely a cute puppy or a kitten would be far more palatable than a rodent. But what if we said yes and built upon that idea for a minute? What if we said “yes and let’s give him a jolly personality”? “Yes and dress him in an adorable outfit.” “Yes and create him with human physical characteristics.” We would have one of the most beloved cartoon characters of all time, Mickey Mouse.

Sure not all ‘yes and . . .” sessions end in success but many do. Therefore, it’s an effective idea generating tool worth adding to one’s arsenal. 

3. Tell Your Teammates You’ve Got Their Back

In the improv theater of work, we’re often making things up as we go. Every time we speak up or step out to do something new, we take a chance. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we fail. Failure always stings, but it stings a little less when there’s someone to help you get back up. And if you can always count on a helping hand, you feel more safe attempting something great and risky. So, don’t promote mediocrity with your silence. Speak up! Tell all your coworkers that you’ve got their backs! After all, what good is your brick if no one feels safe to add theirs to yours? Great castles are built by teams of people who always have each other’s back.

There you have it! I hope you see the value of these 3 improv lessons. I know they’ve had a big impact on the way I work with others. So, go ahead — step out onto the stage and put these new tools into practice!


© 2019 Dmitriy Prokhnevskiy