7 rules of improv comedy that made me a better designer
The world of improv has much more to offer than just "yes, and"
"Yes, and" gets all the publicity, but the world of improv has so much more to offer.
I moved to Chicago 3 weeks after graduating college for an internship at the ad agency Leo Burnett. In the next two years, I unlocked some of the most important insights of my creative career, many coming from within Burnett's stately building on Wacker Drive but even more coming from another nearby Chicago institution.
When I was off the clock you could find me at The Second City, the legendary school of improv comedy. I started from scratch in the base training program and later got accepted into the musical improv conservatory (where we learned to improvise full musicals!). It's not something I expected to get into, but once you get past the initial terror that improv inspires (in everyone!), it unlocks a magical kind of creative environment that's hard to give up.
Today I want to share a few of the improv principles that have served me well across my many creative endeavors in the past decade.
Find the game
Finding the game is about noticing emergent patterns, leaning into them, and then elevating them. Repetition is how you designate something special.
The first time a choice is made, it could be a one-off. But the second time? That starts to be something you can lean into. And the third time? Well, that's the charm.
It's important to note that the game should be fun. That's what games are all about after all. So if it helps you discover the game, you can also think of this principle as "find the fun".
Notice patterns, elevate the interesting ones, make them special, and make them fun.
Follow the fear
Following the fear is about confronting your fear of judgment.
This starts with your self-judgment and extends to the judgment of others.
When you have an instinct that you think could be interesting, but it's scary because you don't know how people will respond, that's this kind of fear. But here's the thing about it: it's usually bogus. It's closer to what Steven Pressfield calls 'Resistance'; the invisible force that holds you back from realizing the things you imagine.
You shouldn't be scared of this kind of fear. Instead, you should follow it as it's a leading indicator. It leads you to the creative areas that are most worth exploring.
Recognize that this feeling of unease is often a confused feeling of excitement for what might be on the other side. The ideas that scare you a little bit? Those are gold.
When in doubt, mirror. Or do the opposite.
In improv, you should never know exactly what you're going to do next. In fact, it's a sign that you're doing it wrong if you waiting on the sidelines planning out your next move instead of stepping out on the floor to perform. This results in a lot of moments where you won't know what to do but still need to act.
A helpful tool to get started is to follow your partner's lead and either mirror their choice (aka copy it) or go strongly in the opposite direction.
Are they a grumpy detective who's been on the beat too long smoking a cigarette to numb the pain? Great, now you are too. Or perhaps instead of mirroring that beat-down detective, you go in the opposite direction and embody a peppy, doe-eyed student who would never touch a cigarette but that's so excited to learn from the master.
Either way, you're acknowledging and honoring your teammate's choice, taking inspiration from it, and using your reaction to amplify it.
Both directions are powerful. You just have to choose.
Copying (or as Austin Kleon would say "stealing like an artist") can be a smart, strong, creative choice. Opposing can be equally strong. Both are potent tools to unblock the start of new creative work.
Commit to the bit
Committing to the bit is about making strong choices and conveying confidence.
Strong choices are interesting and more importantly, they're clear. They give people something to react to, and as the old Stella Adler saying goes "acting is reacting."
When you're performing on stage, the things you perceive as subtle will be imperceptible to the audience and often to your scene partners too. To make your choices come across clearly, you need to heighten them. You need them to be strong.
Conveying confidence isn't just important to the scene, though. You also convey confidence because the audience needs you to. It's an act of caring for them. Audiences get uncomfortable when they notice that you're uncomfortable and this breaks the magic of the act. It puts them back in the reality of sitting in a small, dark room with a bunch of strangers. Awkward.
The clarity of strong choices and the reactions they inspire is a blessing for your creative work and the audience. In the workplace, be especially mindful of projecting confidence during presentations (even when you don't feel confident!) because to do otherwise will actually distract the people listening.
Act from a place of love
When you're off script 100% of the time, you will inevitably stumble into situations that could either touch the third rail or go completely off the rails.
Often this occurs when you're put on the spot to impersonate someone where the gut reaction under stress is to play to stereotypes. But this gets icky quickly.
It sounds woo-woo, but the key to playing those moments is to act from a place of love. When you're impersonating someone you love you do it in such a way that it's funny. It's when it slips into being critical or hateful that it feels bad.
Audiences are very perceptive and quickly pick up on this vibe. Are you creating from a place of love? They'll be comfortable and come along with you. Or are you creating from a place of hate? They'll reject you in a heartbeat.
Humans are great at perceiving intentions. So when it comes time to work on a topic that approaches a touchy issue, if you do it from a place of love, people will recognize it and be more open and supportive.
Delight in your teammates' success
A surprising amount of your time as an improviser is spent on the sidelines watching your teammates perform. This is good because it gives them a chance to shine and it gives you a break!
A mistake that inexperienced improvisers make is relaxing too much when they're not the ones performing. When you're on stage, you're performing, regardless of whether or not you're in the scene. If you're not paying attention or don't seem to be having fun the audience will lose interest too.
When you're in the wings, it's your job to be your teammates' cheerleader. Pay them all the attention. Laugh at all their jokes. Have a great time! It's more fun for you, your teammates love it, and it shows the rest of the audience how they should act.
When you don't have the spotlight, your job is to support the person who does.
Step out before you're ready (and before your teammate needs you)
Improvisers often tag each other out of scenes.
This is harder than it sounds because your teammates will need your support in moments when you don't have any ideas. Meaning that you have to put yourself out there simply because they need your help (and one day you’ll need theirs).
Getting the tag-out right is also tricky because you want to tag people out before they obviously need it, but not while they're still on a roll.
To do this well, you have to:
Get to know your teammates well
Pay close attention while they're performing and notice if there's a lull
Step out on stage before you're ready simply because they need your help
Get to know your teammates, their strengths, and their weaknesses. Learn to complement them. Pay attention to the situation and throw yourself into the mix when they need you to have their back.
Honorable mention... "yes, and"
Alright, you didn't really think you were getting out of here without me at least mentioning "yes, and", did you?
The main thing I have to say about "yes, and" in the workplace is that it only makes sense in specific circumstances. The inherent power dynamics of a corporate team make it tough to fully let go knowing that someone with the power to fire you is standing by. That's not all bad, by the way.
Where "yes, and" really shines is in moments focused on divergent thinking. When you're improvising a scene, it's a fully exploratory environment but when you're working, those moments of exploration are more transient.
Notice when you're in moments that would benefit from more divergent thinking and when you're not. Make your feedback appropriate to the context.
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Thought-provoking post! I've been thinking about trying improv for a long time, and this has definitely encouraged me to look more into it when we move back to SF.
I keep almost closing the tab, then thinking about how each of these applies to cross-functional teams at work. Like the concept of "tagging in" a teammate at work - when everyone on the team is aware of their strengths/weaknesses, "tagging in" someone to help out feels so healthy! "Follow the fear" is also great. Sometimes people are hesitant to speak up about an aspect of a project that confuses them, or to share feedback on product strategy or designs or a tech spec, or to just design and share an idea they have. "Follow the fear" is such a great way to frame this!
(This would be a great conference talk, btw.)