The Most Useful Class You’ll Never Take

Me: “You literally add ZERO value to this company.”

Co-Worker: “Yeah… I mean my boss Gary hasn’t given me a performance review in like… three years!”

Me: “Really? Well, I mean, I hate to be blunt but it shows! You really haven’t grown at all in the past three years!”

Co-Worker: “Wow… you think?”

Me: “Yes. 100%. You’ve really just completely stagnated. What do you even do for this company besides sitting around watching cat videos in your cube all day?”

The above conversation transpired between a co-worker and I last week. My blunt honesty was definitely a huge shock to her, but she seemed to take my words in stride. Subtlety has never been a trait of mine, and consequently I had chosen to conduct this decidedly personal conversation in front of a fairly sizable crowd. Rather than empathize with her, the folks who had gathered around to watch laughed hysterically as I returned each of her insecure inquiries with another direct personal attack.

I’m sure a lot of you are asking yourselves: a) what kind of fucked up, progressive work environment we are in and b) what the hell is wrong with you?

Now, before you pass any judgment, hear me out. The stage that this conversation took place on made it a very appropriate venue for this emotional transaction. Why? Well…. because it was an actual stage. And that dialogue? All of it was improvised on the spot as part of a performance capping off an eight week Intro to Improv course I attended at the Dallas Comedy House.

What comes to mind when you think of improvisational comedy? A lot of you may conjure up memories of the classic ABC show, “Whose Line is It Anyway?” where creative masterminds like Wayne Brady delivered hilarious punch lines and well crafted songs from the tip of their tongue all without any preparation. That show is but one embodiment of the many forms of improv. Take away the props and musical instruments and we arrive at improv’s roots.

Improv at its core is about one basic concept: sending and receiving information. Add some funny people, creativity, a stage, and an audience, and this exchange of information often results in spontaneous hilarity. Like any performance art, it is something that must be learned, practiced, refined and developed.

When you take an improvisational comedy course, you learn the mental framework for systematically weaving colorful scenes together from a mere one word suggestion from the audience.

What I discovered over the course of the eight week course was that the utility and applicability of this mental framework extends well beyond the stage. 

Its benefits are so numerous, it’s really hard to encapsulate in one article. It enhances your interactions with co-workers, with family and friends, and with new acquaintances. It develops your confidence for when you have to present yourself on the metaphorical stage of life.

It will make you a better presenter, a better conversationalist, and a more compelling and interesting person. 

Here’s why:

1) You learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

When you go on stage with absolutely zero preparation, chances are, at one point or another, you are going to create a stale, boring, and generally bad scene. You will run into strange, awkward situations, and they will all take place under the watchful eye of an audience. At first, you feel tense, weird, and generally uncomfortable. However, after countless repetitions, you develop a sort of numb apathy to the consequences associated with “messing up.” In short, you stop giving a fuck about what other people are thinking about you. 

You start to realize that the audience will soon forget what happened, that a funny scene will eventually emerge, and that those watching are silently rooting for you.

When I emerged back to the day to day antics of real life, I started to realize that I was much more comfortable being vulnerable in front of others. I had developed a new sort of confidence that only comes with trying and failing repeatedly. And it was quite liberating.

2) You learn the importance of being a good listener, and you learn what it means to truly listen well.

Truly riveting improv scenes paint a scene rich in detail with characters that are relatable and memorable. However, these scenes don’t just emerge magically. The characters on stage have to critically listen to the dialogue presented by the other players, pick apart the interesting elements in those details, and develop a scene that builds upon those details, creating some sort of theme. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up with just another generic conversation between two generic people.

These improv skills translate directly to conversational skills in the real world. Too often, we find ourselves being half-assed listeners. We constantly think about the next thing that WE want to say instead of the next interesting question or comment we are going to make about what THE OTHER PERSON has said. In improv, you become trained to avoid that conversational pitfall because it makes the scene fail.

3) You learn the importance of contextual details in crafting a compelling and convincing story.

What’s more memorable— two nondescript people talking about how much they despise their jobs or two astronauts griping about how NASA has underfunded their mission and they’ve been secretly harboring resentment against their employing organization as their shuttle launches into the abyss of space?

In improv, developing a good scene means adding rich, colorful details. And in real life, having a successful transmission of information from one individual to another means infusing rich details into your message.

Whether it be in a presentation to senior management or a conversation with a potential boyfriend/girlfriend on a first date, situations that require poignant informational presentations constantly arise. If you’re trying to convince the Senior Director of Operations to buy into a proposed process change, you NEED to paint a compelling and convincing story of WHY he or she should buy into what you’re saying. Likewise, if you’re trying to convince the potential love of your life to fall for you, you need to relate the bare, intimate details of your souls’ nature to the other person. (okay, maybe that’s a little extreme but you get the point…)

4) You learn the value and power of silence.

Silence is deafening.

Oftentimes, the pure power of a couple moments of silence can vastly overshadow any number of words that would have taken its place. On the stage as well as in the real world, this rings true.

Silence can create dead space, but it can also give the audience time to contemplate what has already been said. Employed usefully, it greatly enhances the potency of a scene and can really aid character development. In day to day interactions, a little silence can give you and those around you time to settle your thoughts and collect yourselves. By learning when to be silent on the stage, you will learn when to be silent in real life.

5) You learn how to spot when a situation has reached its climax or run its course.

Improv scenes have a beginning and an end. The scene’s beginning is set— it starts when the players walk onto the spotlight of the stage. However, the scene’s end is completely up to you, the players on stage. You trust your cast members to “cut” your scenes when they have either reached a climax or if they have lulled into a painfully hard to watch travesty.

Improv teaches you to be alert while watching others’ scenes so as to know when to go in and constructively “cut” their actions. Oftentimes, in life, we have meetings and conversations that drag on endlessly, yet contain zero added value. If you know when to cut scenes on a stage, you’ll know how to better “cut” scenes in real life.

TL;DR: Break out of your comfort zone and sign up for an improv class at your local comedy venue!

Title Photo Credit: flickr