The Business of Funny
Comedy provides us a safe place to speak and hear the truth. Unfortunately, at our most important moments, especially in the boardroom where the fate of a company may hang in the balance, freedom to speak the truth and, just as vitally, hear the truth, rarely exists.
This book can change all that. It will teach you not only the tools of an improviser, it will also explain how you can use comedy to communicate honestly and openly, especially during the most difficult conversations. Just like improvisation, comedy is a craft that requires technique and methodology. By exploring the seven elements of improvisation, Yes, And will enable you to find fresh, unconventional, and inspiring ways to:
- Generate ideas more quickly.
- Communicate more effectively.
- Create ensembles that rise to every occasion.
- Create open dialogue with employees and with customers.
- Break down organizational silos that threaten collaborative success.
- Make something out of nothing.
Make Something Out of Nothing
First, Yes, And helps you acknowledge when someone does something good and gives you a chance to encourage that person to reach further. Second, adopting a Yes, And mind-set can be invaluable in motivating teams to reach for new heights when developing ideas and initiatives. Finally, Yes And helps boss-subordinate communications by leveling the playing field of the conversation.
With corporations, no is too often the default answer, and it’s offered reflexively as a way to avoid risk and the possibility of failure. That’s understandable, but it also exacts a high cost in the form of ideas that are never offered, new approaches that are shut down before they have a chance, and teams that never reach their potential because people hold back. It may be hard actually to quantify the adverse impacts of a no culture, but it comes out in lots of ways, including high customer dissatisfaction and a loss of employee engagement in their work and their companies.
No cannot be your default response if you want to create a work environment that is fast, innovative, supportive, and high functioning over time. Yes, And gives the world pace, energy, and forward momentum. And it gives the people who practice it the confidence that, come what may, in business or their personal lives, they can create something out of nothing and make something wonderful out of it.
Build an Ensemble
We don’t all have the luxury of building ensembles from scratch or of picking our fellow team members. More often than not, we are leading or are part of teams that have been thrown together by matters of convenience or entropy. So how do you create better ensembles with the people you are working with right now?
Be in the Moment
One of the exercises that can help train you to stay in the present is Mirror. You may already know how to do this, as it’s a part of many training programs, theatrical and otherwise. Simply have the members of your group split up into pairs and face each other. Assign one person the job of initiating small movements with his face and body; the other person’s job is to mirror his every action, gesture, or expression. Then have the pair reverse roles. Finally, see if they can continue to mirror each other when no one is assigned to lead.
Give and Take
For any scene to work, you need a balance of Givers and Takers. Sometimes people just don’t like to share the spotlight, so they interrupt or otherwise block the Giver’s attempts to take focus. Sometimes, people are just natural Takers.
The minute any one of those performers stepped on the stage they took the focus, whether they wanted to or not. But problems can also arise when Givers don’t step up—when they don’t jump in and take the focus when called upon to do so.
Give and Take is as simple as showing respect. Mastering Give and Take will not only provide a boon to your organization, it will also significantly boost your own role inside the ensemble. It may be surprising to some, but being a good ensemble member or a good teammate or a good colleague is an excellent way to spur personal growth.
Surrender the Need to Be Right
The need to be right, among individuals, institutions, and organizations, is one of the biggest barriers to an ensemble approach to creativity and innovation. Small actions can create big chasms.
Take a moment and think about the most difficult people you have encountered, be it in your office, in your family, as part of an organization, or at an event.
What made these people so awful to deal with? Did they have an agenda? Did they have a “my way or the highway” attitude? Did they listen to anyone’s voice but their own? Chances are, they had an insatiable need to be right and would rather piss off everyone else than surrender an inch. These people are destructive; they keep innovation at bay.
The Co-Creation Story, or Audiences Want In on the Act
You must pay attention to your business’s place in the broader conversations going on in the world. Don’t inject your brand into stories and events that are unconnected to the watercooler talk. On the twelfth anniversary of 9/11, there was a firestorm about various companies posting social media content tying their brand to the remembrances of that tragedy: AT&T posted a picture of one of its smartphones showing two beams of light where the Twin Towers once stood in the New York City skyline; the backlash was so heated they quickly deleted the image and were forced to issue an apology
There will always be risk when you let your audience in on the act, but the benefits to be had in the form of better shows and happier audiences far exceed the risks of ceding some control of the creative process.
Given that it’s something you can try on a small scale, why not give it a whirl and see how your audience responds when you give them a chance to be part of your company’s story? Just remember: Engaging in rapid co-creation works best in the ideation stage and requires you to create a safe platform where everyone knows you’re just riffing and the occasional gaffe won’t get anyone (or everyone) in trouble. Then, as the stakes rise, you can slow your co-creation down, taking more time to carefully shape your communication in a way that highlights your unique and authentic brand identity.
Change Is Hard: Comedy and Improvisation Make It Easier
One of the central benefits of improv is that it teaches people to be more open-minded, and this open-mindedness is usually what’s needed to troubleshoot problems that arise with change.
One improv exercise is Emotional Option, or Emo Op for those in the know. Emo Op is generally regarded as a performance game in improv circles, but it can be an interesting choice in training programs as well.
It’s simple to do. People pair up and talk about anything at all. At various points, our instructor will shout out an emotion—angry! giddy! somber! worried!—and the pairs must continue their conversation in the tone of that emotion. Imagine how that might play out if you happen to be having a conversation about fly-fishing or popcorn. The key here is to teach individuals that the content of their speech will change simply by attaching an emotion to the way in which the words are delivered. They can be the exact same words, but they mean completely different things when said through the filters of different emotions.
There are several ways Emo Op can help you deal with change better. First, it sharpens your ability to read and recognize the different emotions people express in conversation. Second, you can determine if you want to match that tone or find a different one that’ll help you achieve what you want. Third, it’s an important reminder that communication is more than the words you speak.
The inevitability of change in business and in life simply means that we will be continually subject to all sorts of challenges and dilemmas. But comedy makes change more manageable, opening the door for all kinds of conversations. Once that door is open, an expertise in improvisation can make that conversation a whole lot easier to have.
In business and in life, people would be far better off if they viewed their ideas not as finished thoughts to be judged, but simply as a bridge to better ideas, thoughts that grease the wheel and facilitate the contributions of others. If people lowered the burden on themselves in this way, they’d recognize that the only way to fail in this context is to withhold a contribution in the first place.
It’s a counterintuitive thing that most employees don’t grasp: Their ideas are critical, not because they’re brilliant, wholly formed pearls of wisdom. They’re critical because they encourage the flow of ideas from others.
Too often, people assume—wrongly—that every idea is a higher-stakes idea than it really is. They believe the cost of being wrong is just too high, or they hold back their ideas in order to protect the team from one that could slow them down or hurt the organization. This better-safe-than-sorry approach is usually not something that happens on a conscious level. We learn it by experience, by watching too many of our peers suffer the consequences of sticking their necks out. We need to start building organizations that break this cycle and show people the positive consequences of taking risk.
Follow the Follower
We should create an environment in which people could do their work, hire the best and most complementary personnel that we could, and then allow those people to do their work without ongoing interference or distraction.
Build the right sandbox, hire the right people, and get the hell out of the way.
This is because when you’re tasked with developing something original and creative, everyone needs some time to develop ideas free of their bosses’ gaze. Getting outside feedback or judgment too soon changes the creative dynamic of the group—usually not for the better. People start worrying about whether they are responding appropriately to their managers’ notes or try to second-guess what the boss really wants, instead of just letting their creative freak flag fly and seeing where it takes them.
Follow the Follower speaks to leaders and the led alike. It acts as a counterweight to the black-or-white, my-way-or-the-highway approach to life so many of us live. We have a natural tendency toward absolutism that is becoming increasingly reinforced by the way our media scream at us about politics and in the way that social media tends to judge first and ask questions later. The fact is, there is a whole lot of gray in the real world if you’re willing to see it. If improvisation supports your ability to react in real time to changes, Follow the Follower asks that you consider the perspective of others as well, also in real time.
Listening Is a Muscle
People really can become better listeners and communicators with committed practice. Listening is like a muscle—it needs to be worked in order to see improvement.
One example of a great listening skills exercise is Last Word Response. In this exercise, pair people up and instruct them to have a conversation about anything at all, business-related or not. The only catch is that participants must begin whatever they say with the last word spoken by their partner. In practice, it might sound something like this:
- PERSON 1Boy, I love hot summer days. Can’t wait to go for a run and jump into the pool after work.
- PERSON 2Work has been hard lately. I’m really struggling to connect with my new boss.
- PERSON 1Boss is a title I’ve never liked much. I like to collaborate more than to give orders.
- PERSON 2Orders get clogged up all the time in our procurement system.
You get the idea. It’s not important that the conversation actually make any sense. In fact, it’s more fun if it doesn’t. But an exercise like Last Word Response is a great way to demonstrate how poorly we tend to listen to colleagues in everyday conversation—because in order to be successful, the participants must listen to each other all the way through to the end of a thought.
“Improvisational listeners” are more effective listeners because they go into every conversation looking to build on what the other person offers. This isn’t to suggest that improvisational listeners are soft or lack the ability to forcefully advocate their position. It just means that they understand that their advocacy is grounded in and improved by what is actually being said by others. It doesn’t exist in an echo chamber.
Sales calls, creative meetings where different visions are being expressed, and one-on-one employee reviews are essential moments of communication; how well you listen at these crucial times can determine the success or failure of your entire business. If you are not practicing total listening, you are not bringing your A-game to the endeavor, which, practically speaking, doesn’t make any sense if you want to succeed.