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How To Use Improv In Business


"It is a driving passion of mine to get people to understand that improv skills can be effectively translated into the business world with powerful results," says Bob Kulhan, veteran improv performer, university professor, and author of the fascinating new book, Getting To "Yes And": The Art of Business Improv.

And, "Nope, improv isn't just making stuff up," explains Kulhan. "Preparation and awareness are critical to successful improvisation."

He further explains that improvisation takes technique, training, practice, thoughtfulness and intelligence. "Improvisation at its most effective is a deliberate strategy that draws on intelligence in concert with instinct. And, in business, improvisation thrives at the pivotal intersection where planning and strategy meet execution."

Kulhan, who was trained in improv by notables including Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, also teaches you in his book the powerful difference between "Yes, and..." and "Yes, but..." 
  • "Yes, and..." is a technique that slows the brain down. It allows you to be present and in the moment and dramatically strengthens your ability to listen, focus, concentrate, and engage. It's also an indication that your're postponing judgment, fostering inclusivity and increasing adaptability, flow, and momentum. It facilitates conversation. This technique is one used effectively by the best improv professionals and Kulhan believes it's essential to succeeding in business.


Bob Kulhan

So, how do you start using improv? Whether you’re an individual navigating your career or a business leader facing a merger in an uncertain environment, strategies like these below will help you get started:

How to Start Using Improv at Work -- By: Bob Kulhan
  1. Cling to “Yes, And…” The cornerstone of all improvisation, “Yes” is unconditional acceptance and “And” is what you do with that which you accepted (i.e. how you react). This deceptively simple two-word phrase is an incredibly impressive multi-purpose tool for engaging other people and managing conflict (as opposed to the phrase “Yes, but,” which shuts people down). It’s also very effective for building connection and strong relationships with key stakeholders, like your coworkers (internal) and your customers (external).
  2. Develop an improvisor’s mindset to be an agent of change. Improvisers thrive in the unknown because the art of improv is rooted in adaptability. Embrace the problem solving, do-whatever-it-takes, entrepreneurial mindset that improvisation inherently provides by framing your way of thinking so that you intentionally look to explore the possibility and potential of an idea before you judge that it won’t work.
  3. Warm up to change your energy and attitude. Improvisers warm up before everything because we understand that (unlike the weather) our energy and attitude are choices, which can easily be adjusted to influence the people around us. Move around before your next meeting, phone call, or presentation—pace, jump, or shake your limbs a bit, to get blood pumping more quickly throughout your body and increase the amount of oxygen to your brain. Get energized and in “game state”—the right physical and mental place to influence those around you in a positive way.
  4. Communicate like you’re in an improv show. Improv is a communication-based art form that relies on intense listening. In everyday communication, most of us think about what we’re going to say next as opposed to being focused in the moment and reacting to what the other person actually says. Instead of directing that energy inward, to your thoughts, direct it outward—listen with your whole body, engaging the person talking with you, whether it’s a team member, vendor or client.
  5. Cultivate a culture of acceptance to collaborate the way improv groups do. Improv is a team sport; improvisers understand that the team as a whole is smarter than any one person in it. Set a collaboration up for success by defining the rule that—for a specific period of time (i.e. 10 minutes)—every idea brought to the table will be unconditionally accepted as an idea worth exploration and it is the team’s job to make sure that everyone in the meeting is engaged and participating fully.

Kulhan is President, CEO, and Founder of Business Improv, a consultancy that specializes in experiential learning and serves an international roster of blue-chip firms. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. 

Thank you to the book publisher for sending me an advance copy of the book.

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