The Noodle

Lessons from the stage

How improvisation leads to success

Improvisation is the expression of the accumulated yearnings, dreams and wisdom of the soul.

Noted Violinist Yehudi Menuhin

Tom Yorton admits to an epiphany moment. After 20 years in the corporate world as a senior marketing executive with the likes of 3COM, Sears and Ogilvy & Mather, he walked through the doors of the famed The Second City comedy troupe in Chicago with his eyes wide open to the possibilities. And then it hit him – just how much business was like an act of improvisation.

It’s the kind of question Yorton, CEO of Second City Communications (SCC), gets often. Can the skills needed to make people laugh really translate into running a business? It’s a fair question – one that Yorton says surprises people when they realize two important lessons. Improvisation isn’t always about being funny, and humor is about finding the truth. To understand these concepts, it’s important to know SCC’s history.

Founded in 1959, the legendary The Second City comedy theater became the launching pad for what seems like everything and everyone we find funny: John Belushi, Bill Murray, Mike Meyers, Steven Carell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey, to name a few. The list seems endless. Yes, The Second City has its place card in history as a pioneer of improvisational comedy and an environment where actors work without scripts and feed off each other’s ideas and energy to create a think tank of comedic genius. That it came to be a force in the world of corporate training is something that makes sense, when you see how humor helps to reveal the truth in situations.

Yorton came aboard 11 years ago to help grow SCC, the business solutions arm of The Second City. Business people attending its shows started asking The Second City to perform at sales gatherings, annual meetings, etc. Invariably, it led to creating custom material for those events. “We found that our material not only could be used in the service of entertainment, but also to help convey messages within the business world,” Yorton says. “There is common ground between the two. In particular, the interpersonal communications and adaptive skills required in improvisation are similar to those in business.”

During his tenure, Yorton and company have worked with some 1,000 companies, ranging from nonprofit organizations to small companies and Fortune 500 giants. SCC’s in- delible mark can be found on everything from communications skills workshops for sales- people to custom video training for insurance claims reps, and comedic compliance programs that complement e-learning modules.

Finding your comedic groove

At its core, good improvisation is all about listening, reacting in the moment, creating and supporting the ideas of others, and innovating as an ensemble (see sidebar, “8 ways to improvise your way to success). And, while the end product sometimes can be funny, improv skills are not intrinsically about being funny. “Solid improv skills are present in supremely good communicators and team players,” Yorton says. “When those skills are brought to bear on stage, they are a powerful antidote to the fear, apprehension and mistrust that can lead to failure. These same skills can be developed in businesspeople to help them become more effective in their work, especially in their willing- ness to take responsible risks and to innovate.”

To bridge the worlds of improvisation and business, SCC developed an event and conference component through which improv training and learning methodologies are used to help build skills for its corporate clients.

“We found that the skills our actors need to be successful on stage have a lot to do with the business world: listening, teamwork and collaboration, innovation and collaboration, risk taking, conflict resolution,” Yorton says. “These are all of the things professionals require to do what they do.”

The other parts of SCC’s business involve improvisation training for a corporate education context, video services and video productions.

SCC also found success in the world of con- tent marketing, where it is using improv to help create breakthrough content ideas by partnering with PR firms, ad agencies and client marketing teams. One of the programs it created for Seattle’s Best Coffee is a 24-hour, live streaming improvised comedy show accessible via Facebook. SCC invited Seattle’s Best’s agency, Creature Creative, and its public relations firm, Zeno Group, to participate in SCC’s Creative Development Workshop, where parties use improv to explore themes, ideas and relationships.

For Yorton, this process helps reaffirm the epiphany he had 11 years ago. “We pretend that everything is fully scripted. We pretend that we are in complete control. But there are a million curves that get thrown at you every day in business, and a million things that require you to be nimble, adaptive, agile and to think on your feet. Improv assumes an ensemble. In business, you’re always working with somebody. You’re improvising all the time; it’s just that you don’t think about it as such. If you can process this better, you not only can function better as an individual, but also as a team, a department and an organization. Every business is an imperfect situation. We use the humor to get to the truth by giving you tools you can use to navigate better. It’s all about creating a better connection.”

In business, you’re always working with somebody. You’re improvising all the time; it’s just that you don’t think about it as such.

Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Communications (SCC)

8 ways to improvise your way to success

So, how do the worlds of improvisation and business compare? Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Communications (SCC), shows you eight improvisation techniques that can help your business.

No. 1: Seek Those
‘Yes, and …’ Moments Improvisation is about affirmation, creation and mutual sup- port. Its training is built on the concept of what it calls “yes, and” moments. That’s when other members of the group put an idea or proposition forward, the group affirms the proposition, and then additional information is added. This allows the team to reach its full potential before objections derail an idea.

No. 2: Follow Your Fears Fear usually is an indication that something important is at stake. People feel fear because they care about an outcome. In improv, actors are taught to “lean into” conflict, not walk away from it. This practice likely reveals something new.

No. 3: Plan Less and Discover More
 The less you plan, the more you’ll discover; the more you plan, the less you’ll discover. Every organization wants to be known as innovative and creative. Yet, most conditions that allow for in- novation and creativity seldomly are present. Standard routines and processes govern most daily work experiences. In improvisation, the absence of a plan allows room for discovery.

No. 4: Start in the Middle 
Improv actors know that a linear, orderly progression makes for a boring scene. In business, people take great pains to lay things out in logical progressions. There is comfort in following the flow. But when there’s a crisis or need to innovate, success sometimes comes from taking leaps and making creative connections in the absence of perfect in- formation and thoughtful preparation.

No. 5: ‘Bring a Brick,
Not a Cathedral’
Employees don’t like to feel small and insignificant. This causes them to hold back ideas and feedback. In improvisation, seemingly small contributions are important to the whole. If each ensemble member brings something, the collective energy is greater than one person carrying the load. When your contribution matters, you’re obligated to bring something to the game.

No. 6: If One Idea
Doesn’t Work, Try Another
In improvisation, people move quickly. There’s little time to analyze or assess; only time to listen and react. Consequently, ideas and inspiration come and go fluidly. Improv actors know that right and wrong usually is a false dichotomy; there are only possibilities and choices. Performers are rewarded by their willingness to support the ensemble and adapt on the fly to new ideas.

No. 7: Try Not to Top Someone … …at least until you’ve equaled him. Because business usually is a competitive endeavor, people always are trying to one-up each other. This comes out of a fear of looking bad and falling behind in an internal competition. Someone else’s gain means your loss, which creates a stifling environment. In improvisation, the best way to “get fed” is to do some feeding of your own.

No. 8: Make Accidents Work
The world has a tendency to throw curveballs. The key is how you respond to it. In improvisation, the axiom “make accidents work” describes much of its existence. There is no such thing as a preordained outcome in improvisation. It’s about living in the moment. Learn to embrace the possibilities that “accidents” offer.

By Michael J. Pallerino