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TD Magazine Article

Setting the Stage for Employee Success Through Improv

Soft skills take the spotlight with these improvisation exercises.


Thu Jun 01 2017


Soft skills take the spotlight with these improvisation exercises.


Ask a director to recommend training methods for an actor who needs to be successful onstage and you're likely to hear improvisation at the top of the list. And with improv's purported benefits of helping actors respond in the moment, think quickly on their feet, and listen actively, it's no surprise that talent development professionals have taken an interest in bringing improvisation training to their workplaces.

Improvisation is the action of creating or performing spontaneously. Applied to theater, performers are given suggestions and create scenes together without a script or an opportunity to plan.

Organizations that have incorporated improv into their talent development programs generally report three desirable outcomes: skills development, self-awareness, and organizational awareness.

Skills development

The skills used by actors to perform improv are the same skills required by organizations. Workplace competencies frequently cited as areas strengthened through improv training include communication, adaptability, collaboration, and creativity.

"Instant Expert" is an improv exercise that is used to develop public speaking skills. In that activity, one participant instantly becomes an expert on a topic in which he has limited familiarity, such as combustion engines. Other participants ask him questions related to the subject and he provides responses, as though he is an expert. The key is to frame responses with information that establishes credibility. The exercise effectively builds skills in persuading others and projecting confidence in uncertain situations.



Improv is effective for experiential learning. Participants in improv training often report an emotional experience, learning about their behaviors in an environment that differs from the workplace. With skillful inquiry from a facilitator, the improv stage enables participants to reflect on their own behaviors and apply that awareness to the workplace.

Group storytelling is an exercise that can increase self-awareness. It begins with the facilitator providing a title for the soon-to-be story. Each participant then contributes only one sentence at a time to the story, building on information from previous participants. The goal is to accept the information given by others and contribute relevant information that moves the story forward.

The exercise offers several levels of inquiry strategy that can lead to tremendous insight. First, the facilitator can direct participants to reflect on the process of creating the narrative. Asking participants to identify elements that contribute to a strong narrative strengthens their understanding of storytelling.

Second, the facilitator can have participants reflect on improv skills they individually applied or could have applied to make group storytelling effective. Participants regularly identify that active listening and immediately accepting ideas promote group storytelling. In contrast, hidden agendas and distractions are detrimental.

Finally, with awareness gained from group storytelling, the facilitator can help participants identify how these individual strengths and weaknesses might be projected to the workplace, perhaps to a team project.


Organizational awareness

Similar to self-awareness, organizations use improv training to learn about their collective strengths and weaknesses. Factors often assessed include the extent to which employees possess critical competencies, alignment of organizational values with individual behaviors, and agility of employees to collaborate with diverse co-workers to achieve a common goal.

An exercise that promotes organizational awareness is "Walk and Talk," in which the facilitator endows participants with a trait. Participants walk around the room demonstrating the physicality of the trait. The facilitator then cues participants to stop and give a monologue based on that trait. For instance, the trait might be for participants to walk and talk as though they are birds. The physicality of being a bird might be simple; the challenge is expressing in words what a bird might be thinking or feeling.

The exercise is heightened when participants are endowed with personality traits, such as being the happiest person in the world. To make this improv exercise relevant to the workplace, participants might be endowed as a disappointed customer, which creates an opportunity to imagine the perspectives of the customer.

Walk-and-talks can expose organizational strengths and weaknesses related to empathy and employees' ability to vicariously experience emotions of others. Through skillful inquiry, a facilitator can draw out an organization's bias in how employees perceive customers. Perhaps as participants reflect on the words they used in delivering a monologue as a "fiercely loyal customer," they recognize their biased belief that loyalty is built on product satisfaction rather than customer service.

Integrating improv into a talent development program

The most effective way for talent development professionals to use improv is to combine it with traditional training methods. That creates a purposeful alignment that moves improv training from broad-based learning to learning that supports specific business needs. To walk you through the how-to of aligning an improv program, let's take a hypothetical organization, Fashion Forward, a chain of high-end boutique clothing stores.

Select training competency and skills

Start by selecting competencies and skills supported by improv training. Such training most readily supports soft skills training. For this article, soft skills refer to attributes that enable the workforce to interact effectively with others; are critical to all organizations, regardless of size or industry; and are applicable to all levels of employees.

Our talent development professional at Fashion Forward has identified that the company's service model, Service First, is the perfect training program to be supported with improv. Service First is a five-step process that all sales associates are expected to complete when engaging customers:

  1. Welcome customer: Greet guest appropriately and within one minute of entering store.

  2. Identify needs: Fully listen to customer's situation and ask probing questions.

  3. Offer solutions: Offer products currently available in-store or offer to order online.

  4. Resolve needs: Provide correct products and charge customer accurately.

  5. Invite customer back: Thank guest by name, provide business card, and invite the customer back.

    Design exercises to align with skills

    After training competencies and skills are identified, the next step is to design improv exercises that support the established training. Improv exercises come in the form of games or scenes (see sidebar, "Tips for Learning Improv Exercises," below).

    Games are an excellent strategy to introduce improv concepts. A game develops one or two skills, and involves step-by-step instructions. Success is defined when the game's singular objective is achieved.

    Scenes are an advanced level of improv and involve skills developed through multiple games. Step-by-step instructions are not given, but rather a framework is provided that guides participants in co-creating an improvised narrative. Success of a scene is measured at different points as the scene unfolds.

    Going back to our example, let's say our talent development professional identifies that building associates' awareness is critical to step 1 of the Service First model. A game that builds awareness is "Walking by Numbers." Participants take different positions in the room. The facilitator announces a number that is equal to or less than the number of participants, signifying how many participants may walk at the same time. For example, if the facilitator announces, "two," only two participants may walk, and if another participant starts to walk, one of the two original walkers must stop. The facilitator changes the number throughout the game.

    The object of the game is for participants to apply awareness in ensuring that only the correct number of participants are walking at one time. At Fashion Forward, building associates' capacity for heightened awareness strengthens their ability to greet customers within one minute of entering the store.

    Let's take another example with the competency of identifying needs. Active listening is foundational to that step. A game that supports listening is "Yes." While all participants stand in a circle, one participant makes eye contact with a second and then says her name. She may only respond with, "yes," which gives the first person permission to move to her spot. The second person makes eye contact with a third person, and then says his name, waiting for "yes" before she moves to his position.

    Although this game sounds simple, participants quickly realize their tendency to take action (moving into someone else's position) before fully listening to the other person's response. Skillful facilitation during the debrief from our talent development professional further helps participants recognize that listening is even more difficult when the situation becomes routine ("yes" is the only response allowed in this game). At Fashion Forward, selling a limited number of products might become routine for associates, and truly listening to the unique needs of customers might be sacrificed for a fast transaction.

    Let's move forward in our hypothetical situation. It's been a few lessons and our talent development professional feels confident her participants have mastered the basics of improv games and are now ready for scenes. Our facilitator selects "One-Word Story." In this scenario, two participants are given an activity they are performing together, such as painting a fence. The participants use space work (pantomiming the physical objects that would normally be in the scene), words, and nonverbal cues to create the scene. Their general guideline for the scene is to establish relationship (who they are to one another), specific location, and purpose (stakes for needing to get the task completed).

    Once the facilitator sees the general guidelines have been achieved, she then instructs the two participants to perform that exact same scene, but this time, instead of full sentences, they are allowed to exchange only one word in place of sentences.

    In that activity, participants are building several skills. First, because the facilitator is providing the suggestions for the scene, no preplanning can occur, building the skills of active listening and remaining adaptable to change. Second, because participants are limited to one-word exchanges, nonverbal communication skills are strengthened. And third, one-word exchanges teach participants to be succinct and to assess the power of their word selection.

    Measure effectiveness

    A simple way to measure improv training's effectiveness is conducting pretraining and post-training assessments. Pretraining and post-training (three months following completion of training) surveys can be administered to a participant to measure his confidence in applying soft skills on the job, such as listening, creative thinking, and collaborating. A similar survey can be administered to his supervisor to measure the extent to which she believes he applies soft skills to his job.

    To illustrate, pretraining and post-training surveys for the employee assessment might include a question such as, "When listening to customers, I always consider the problem from their perspective." For the supervisor assessment, a question might include, "During presentations, employee successfully addresses questions from the audience."

    Effectiveness of training also can be measured in scene work when suggestions for the scenes are workplace scenarios. Let's take one last look at Fashion Forward. Our talent development professional might choose to have the improv training culminate with scene work with a customer entering the store. Using skills developed through improv training, participants demonstrate how they honor the Service First model's five steps. In effect, the improv exercises have reinforced skills required for all five steps, and can now be applied to a role-play scenario.

    During the scene, the facilitator might evaluate the employee's speed in acknowledging and greeting the customer (step 1), followed by fully listening to the customer's situation and demonstrating empathy (step 2). Each of the five steps can be applied to the employee's role-play scenario for evaluation.

    A third way talent development professionals can measure effectiveness is through the participant experience. As the skills associated with improv are enhanced, participants will report greater comfort with the structure of improv.

    Make it ongoing

    Research supports that with diligent practice, creativity and soft skills can be nurtured. While this article has focused on making improv training part of a formal program, the principles of improv can be reinforced in other ways, such as starting meetings with improv games or practicing improv scenes during lunch-and-learn sessions.

    Improv training has stood the test of time in the theatrical world. It's regarded as an effective cornerstone that builds foundational skills required of auditioning, rehearsing, and performing. With purposeful alignment and careful planning, improv can be a foundation in any organization's talent development program, too.

    Tips for Learning Improv Exercises

  • Partner with a local theater or improv school. Talent development professionals and artists can co-facilitate sessions, with the improviser teaching the art form and the trainer keeping it relevant.

  • Read a book. Numerous books are available that delve into this subject matter with greater detail.

  • Several websites provide comprehensive lists of improv games. One notable website is ImprovEncyclopedia.org, which offers hundreds of exercises categorized by type and skill.

  • The best way to learn improv is to roll up your sleeves and try it. Training is available from parks and recreation programs, local theaters, and national improv schools.

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June 2017 - TD Magazine

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