When I tell colleagues that I perform improv comedy, I usually get one of the following responses:
- Blank stare (could be horror, I’m still not entirely clear)
- Oh cool! (tells me about doing improv in college/show they’ve seen/friend who performs)
But by far the most common response I get is: “You make up everything on the spot? That sounds so hard!”
But guess what? Every unscripted conversation is improv and you do it every day: responding in the moment to questions, contributing to discussions, building toward goals with your colleagues, all in real time.
The only difference is that I do mine on stage, occasionally in character as Amelia Earhart or an animatronic tree, and I practice it often. My team at Sick Puppies Comedy prior to COVID-19 rehearsed about 3 hours per week, with 2 hours of shows on the weekends.
Wait, if everything is done on the spot, how do you rehearse improv? And what does any of this have to do with marketing?
Improvisation is a skill like any other–the more you do it, the better at it you get, and it actually has nothing to do with being funny. The skills that you learn in improv can be applied anywhere, especially in a discipline like advocacy marketing where you need to show empathy to your customers and quickly pivot when there’s a new initiative or a customer is having a major issue.
In fact, improv’s founding principle, “yes, AND” (meaning that you don’t deny the reality that your teammates portray; you accept it and build on it) is so fundamental to helping boost creativity and collaboration that Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business even offers a course on improv and design thinking.
Read on to learn more about each improv skill and how it can be applied to customer advocacy and community management.
Have you ever been in a meeting where somebody made a statement and by the time you were finished rehearsing the response in your head, you looked up and realized that the moment for your brilliant retort had passed, and you had no idea what was now being discussed?
We’ve all been there, but it’s amplified 100 times over when it happens on stage in front of an audience. If it happens too often, you’ll be known as “that person who ruins scenes”, and nobody will want to continue playing with you. Thankfully if you’re doing improv for fun, that’s really the worst consequence that can happen. It’s a great testing ground for learning to silence the voice in your head and pay full attention to what’s happening around you. You’ll also learn with practice that when you actively listen, you also better understand what the other person is saying—and it’s that understanding that is going to build better relationships with your customers, your colleagues, and everyone around you. This is a crucial skill for advocacy and community management: active listening can uncover new opportunities for your company to create moments that matter.
Confidence and brainstorming
How confident would you feel if you knew that any idea you vocalized would not only be accepted but enthusiastically built upon? That’s the improv foundation that over time helps you quiet the inner critic in your head and lets you come up with the big ideas that turn into successful programs. Of course in the real world, you’ll have naysayers and budget limitations, and a million reasons why a plan won’t work. Most ideas probably won’t pan out into “The Big Thing That Changes The World,” but if you can train yourself to let your imagination run wild, you’ll find more ideas at the beginning to narrow down into the good ones. Curating content in your community requires the same skills of brainstorming and being creative with the resources at your disposal. When you aren’t sure if an idea will stick, don’t be afraid to ask your members for their opinion. You may be surprised at what you learn and could lead to bigger and better ideas.
Pivoting and Empathy
Before I stepped foot on stage for one show, I had fully planned out my character as a firefighter named Stella Magella. She had a backstory, a family, she collected porcelain frogs. When we started, however, the first sentence out of my partner’s mouth was “Hey, Mrs. Fields—you burned all the cookies!” If I wanted the scene to work (and not look like a jerk), I had to immediately drop my plan and go along with the reality presented before me. Then, I needed to assess what my partner’s character was feeling: was he angry at my character? His tone of voice didn’t appear so. I decided on flirty and responded accordingly. “My apologies, Dr. Pepper. I got so distracted trying to figure out the brilliant combination of flavors in your soda, I didn’t hear the oven timer go off.”
It was this type of repeated quick pivoting in rehearsals and shows that now allows me to more easily drop a tactic, plan, or strategy that isn’t working and move on to the next thing. When you’re collecting feedback in the community, or receiving responses that don’t fit with the outputs you were hoping to achieve, don’t be afraid to pivot on the spot. Leading with empathy is what makes a good community manager a great one!
Putting Improv into Action
Here are a few warm-up exercises that my team does that you can try with your colleagues, even over video conferencing.
Warmup #1: Counting to 20 (You’ll want a minimum of 5 people to do this exercise)
Skills used: active listening, teamwork, resilience
What to do: Everyone closes their eyes and takes a deep breath together. Someone starts by saying “one,”
- Someone else continues by saying “two”…then “three” and so on.
- Only one person can say a number at a time. If the same number is called out by more than one person, someone starts over with “one”.
- When the team reaches 20, celebrate!
Why it works: This is a tough exercise for type A people as you can’t control who says what number at what time. You really have to listen closely to what’s going on around you and instinctively feel when it’s your turn to say a number. In fact, the more you’re “in your head” trying to calculate who said what number last, the more likely you’re going to overlap somebody else’s number and have to start over, because you weren’t actively listening. Sneaky, huh?
Warmup #2: I can do everything great
Skills used: uninhibited thinking, positive reinforcement, teamwork
What to do: One person points at another person and names an object that the person is. The designated person, as that object, must name five things they love about themselves as everyone else counts along with the listed reasons. These reasons should be whatever comes to mind first (they don’t have to be accurate or even make sense). After the fifth reason, everyone yells “You can do everything great!” and the person who just went assigns the next person/object.
Why it works: We’re often so worried about saying the exact right thing that we don’t speak up at all. This game gives players license to say literally anything at all and still receive enthusiastic support. It’s part of what makes affirmations such an effective self-motivating tool.
Warmup #3 One word at a time story
Skills used: active listening, building on ideas, teamwork, quick thinking
What to do: In a circle (or designated order) start a story, with each person contributing one word (usually starts with once-upon-a-time). Participants can end a sentence with “period,” “exclamation point,” or “question mark” to signal the start of a new sentence with the next participant.
Why it works: Each player has to employ active listening to make sure that their word grammatically fits into the story syntax. Nobody has enough power with one word to steer the story into any given direction, nor can anyone pre-plan what to say because their word will be heavily dependent on the word said immediately before. This game involves teamwork to make the story coherent. The narrative can (and usually does) go off the rails into something ridiculous, but that’s what makes it funny.
Wrapping it all up:
Improv is so much more than a bunch of goofy people crawling around on stage making weird sounds and (hopefully) eliciting laughter somewhere in the process. It’s an art form that uses a foundation of skills that can be applied in just about any situation: active listening, pivoting, teamwork, and empathy.
As a customer marketer, it allows me to get out of my own head and pay closer attention to what my customers are not only saying, but what they’re feeling, and respond accordingly. Did I use a comprehensive, well-planned strategy to build the UserTesting CommUnity into the Bammie-winning program that it is today? Absolutely! But the day-to-day interactions with everyone I engage with? I make them up as I go along.
About the Author
Lauren Turner is the Senior Manager of Customer Marketing at UserTesting, an on-demand human insight platform that quickly gives companies a first-person understanding of how their target audience behaves throughout any experience and why. Driving and growing the company’s customer CommUnity, user groups and reference programs, Lauren is obsessed with creating experiences for customers that are engaging, educational and fun. UserTesting won the 2020 Influitive BAMMIE award for Program of the Year – Mid-Market.
When she’s not strategizing the next pilot program or interviewing customers for case studies, she performs improv comedy (now over Zoom) as a member of the mainstage cast of Sick Puppies Comedy in Delray, Florida.