Why You Should Take an Improv Class

I am a UX Designer, currently in the digital consulting space. While I do spend the majority of my time behind my computer, a big component of my work is engaging with clients and stakeholders, gathering user insights, and demoing prototypes.

I am also a textbook introvert. Creative by nature, but not feeling my best self among a crowd of strangers, especially if I had to speak in front of them as a group. I do get comfortable as I get to know people, but after each meeting, I always wonder how I could have been more engaging.

I may have sounded like Stanley’s niece, who is six months old.

I have taken public speaking classes in high school, college, and gave presentations twice a week throughout grad school, yet I still hadn’t hit my stride. Then a couple years ago, a friend told me about his experience taking an improv class.

Improv? I was a huge fan of Whose Line is it Anyway? back in the late 90s/early 00s, but I could never imagine myself making things up on the spot in such a clever way like they did on the show. My friend raved about how the class improved his speaking skills and it was a fun time. So I figured, I’ll give it a try!

I walked into my first class at the Magnet Training Center with an open mind. The other students seemed fun and eager, some with no experience, some with years of acting experience. We started off with a warm up exercise, where we form a circle, and go around the group saying our name along with acting physical movement and then the rest of the group repeats your name and the movement you’ve done. There’s something awkwardly comforting about doing something a little odd, knowing that there are others doing this with you.

A Level 1 class goes over basics, starting with games and short exercises to get participants comfortable and creative with the characters they are building on the spot, eventually advancing to longer scenes and preparing for the format of our live show. There were so many moments along the way where I would enter the stage during class and stare blankly as I thought of an idea to start a scene from a one word suggestion. After a nudge from the instructor, I dive into the mindset of a donut shop owner based off of the suggestion “sprinkles”, and the scene goes from there.

While this is all fun and games, there have been long term effects after taking a few classes for two years. From the perspective of my professional life, here are some things I have learned from improv that have benefited my career:

Developing your active listening skills

I have been guilty of zoning out in conversations and meetings at any given moment. We all do this, and recover by saying, “wait, what was that again?” or things just spiral to a new topic. Improv gives practice in understanding the context of what your partner is saying & what you can do with that information. You’ll lose the momentum of the scene if you are not actively listening to your scene partner’s words, body language, and actions.

Building ease in team collaboration

I’m sure you have been in meetings where everyone is talking over each other, trying to get their point across and your team ends up wasting an hour talking about a meme someone sent on Slack that morning…

Improv focuses on allowing space to develop dialogue and avoiding the “too many chefs in the kitchen” situation that arises in groups. If you miss the details of what your scene partner is doing or saying, you’ll miss the enchantment of where the scene could go. The worst practices I’ve seen in class were people talking over their partners and forcing the drive of the conversations, leaving the partner confused and the audience bored.

Leaving space for active dialogue, watching cues by understanding the setting and the developing relationship between you and your partner(s) makes a much more engaging and funny scene to play.

What is the concept of “Yes, and” and is “Yes, but” the same thing?

Shortly after taking my first improv class, I was assisting a colleague in developing a curriculum for a Business Analyst training to include improv exercises. His first question for me was, “Why isn’t this called Yes, but because I never agree with what people are saying?”

The main principle of improv is “Yes, and”, the concept of accepting the reality and contributing to it. You are saying yes to acknowledge the situation at hand, and then adding on to it to bring value to the conversation. If someone walks on stage and acknowledges that they are a zookeeper, you are not going to deny who they are. You can say you’re an astronaut, offer to buy them a beer, and see where the scene goes.

Yes, and this applies if you always disagree with your colleagues.

You will fumble, make mistakes, and get back up

Let’s face it, you’re human, you‘re going to say silly things, accidentally interrupt someone, or start a thought and forget what everyone else was talking about. It will build up your confidence and strengthen your creativity. It will help you build team camaraderie and make you feel comfortable to laugh it off in the process.

It’s been two years since my first class, I still sign up on occasion as improv skills are like a muscle that needs exercise. If you are reading this during the global pandemic, there are virtual classes available. Here are three studios I recommend:

Senior Product/UX Designer, Innovation Strategy Leader, AI/ML design, music nerd, new to the world of improv.