5 Lessons Marketers Can Learn from Improv Comedy

In General by Tim Halloran

I started improv the winter of 2015 with the hopes of improving my ability to think on my feet, a skill that’s vital in everyday life but also working in a marketing agency.

We live in a world of artificiality and a “respond when it’s convenient” mindset and I was beginning to see that I couldn’t think practically in the moment and respond with coherent thoughts. I’m great with an email but put me in a meeting with a client and I get red and start sputtering to articulate my thoughts. I got so focused on what others thought of me that I effectively stopped listening and focused solely on maintaining a calm demeanor. As a creative this is debilitating, especially when you have ideas floating around in your head 24/7. All input and no output can make you rigid and paralyzed.

Looking back almost two years later, this was probably one of the best decision I made and the longer I’ve stayed in it, the more I’ve seen connections between marketing, improv and just general mental health. Here are 5 lessons I learned in improv that pertain to life as a marketer.

1. Listen First, Then Respond.

It’s easy to think ahead instead of listening. It’s something we do unconsciously and the age of messaging apps has made it even worse. Formulating a response and actually listening and digesting what someone is saying are two different skills.

In improv, you don’t have the luxury of prepping. With call and response games, someone will say “red”, the next person will say “blue” and while you’re getting ready to say “yellow” than next person throws a curveball and says “berries”. This removes the benefit of analyzing that whole time getting your response ready only for the topic to pivot.

In marketing, when a client has a problem or throws you a curveball, it’s easy to refer back to a set strategy you have in place or a signed contract guaranteeing a finished product. Especially when you feel like you’re justified in being frustrated with getting just one more chore thrown on your lap.

Try this exercise, remove yourself from the equation, practice listening to what they’re saying instead of preparing your response. Now and then, communication can come across as arrogant or condescending but when you stop formulating a response and actually listen and put yourself in their shoes, something you originally construed as rudeness could actually be masked desperation or fear that they won’t meet their profitability goals for the quarter. With that perspective you can respond in kind with empathy and logic instead of passive aggressiveness which can damage working relationships. It’s not about compromising, it’s about understanding. Which brings me to my next point…

2. Agree & Improve.

Even if you don’t know much about improv many have heard the phrase, “Yes, And…” It’s one of the core tenets of improv. When someone says something you agree with it then add to it.

For example, when I come on stage to do a dialogue with another character and say, “Hey Kate, I’m really tired tonight, I think I’m going to skip going to the prom with you.” and the other person responds with, “I’m not Kate, I’m Chad and we’re not in high school we’re in our 40’s.” What would you think of a scene like that as an audience member? It’s jarring and uncomfortable and you’ve essentially destroyed the story. The only way to salvage that situation is to pretend you’re senile or have dementia and that’s contrived and boring. If the other character would have responded with an unspoken agreement like, “That’s fine, I have like 16 back-up dates, you go do your thing.” then you’re tuned in to the plot development. You might start to like Kate’s confident character and want to know how my character is going to respond to a slight like that.

Working in marketing, if you’re in a meeting brainstorming strategies for a client the worst thing you can do is shut someone’s idea down. Kate Leonard in her book Yes, And says, “when problem solving, even a bad idea is just a bridge to a better idea.” It’s your right to think (or know) someone’s idea won’t pan out but you can open up the conversation by finding agreement and improving on an idea.

Maybe your boss asks, “This brand needs to do a better job at reaching millennials. Give me some ideas.” and someone says, “How about plastering giant QR codes on the outfield at the Twins Games?” Instead of a gut-reaction like, “You’ve got to be kidding me, that’s literally the worst idea in the entire world” try instead “I like where you’re headed, maybe we can find a way to integrate our product better in the tech-sphere, find mediums that millennials are interacting on and present our brand as a solution to an unfilled need” and so on.

Brainstorming should be about facilitating conversation and removing that psychological barrier to speak. The moment you start shutting down ideas, three other people in the room get lockjaw. Making the final decisions can happen in another meeting or another time. Which brings me to my next lesson…

3. Don’t be Afraid of Failure.

In Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc. he states, “You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.”

In improv, you genuinely have permission to fail. Failure is always better than not committing to anything. This was the most difficult part of improv for me (and still is). I can be guarded and uptight. Some of my favorite improv coaches were the ones that wholeheartedly embraced failed scenes without fear of judgement. And oddly enough, those same scenes sometimes were the most inspired works of improv comedy I’ve ever seen. When everyone’s guard was down and we all reacted in the moment, those scenes were either hilariously terrible or pure magic.

In marketing, a culture of politically-motivated & failure-averse employees can emerge naturally. The designers hold on to their designs and it pains them when clients dissect them like dead frogs in a Biology lab; the PPC & paid social advertisers can take the criticism of their campaign structure, display ads, and reporting skills to heart because they genuinely did their best. It hurts when you pour yourself into a project only to get it chopped up in front of you.

As easy as it as to say (and hard as it is to do), you can’t make it personal when someone is appraising your work. Whenever you make something new, it’s going to fail in one way or another, it’s a natural byproduct of creating original content. Improving the skill of being okay with failure is a powerful counterforce not only at work but in life.

4. Make Your Peers Look Good.

In improv, a bit can fail if you don’t work together with your stage partners during a scene. In fact, the better you make your partner look, the better you look. You can’t just coast on an amazing partner that’s just killing it, you need to be present and stay in character and be ready when the dialogue get’s passed back to you. When you only focus on how you can make yourself look awesome in the scene you’re compromising the continuity of the story and it will eventually fall apart.

In an office the same is true with your relationship with your clients, customers, and co-workers. Great advertising and marketing work requires a constant tap of empathy to flow out from you. I’ve been guilty of plugging in and forgetting about the world and that’s not always efficient for the department as a whole (even if it feels like it is). While it’s good to focus on your technical work day to day, don’t neglect the people around you. When company culture succeeds, you succeed.

The author Lewis Howes says it best, “Effective networking isn’t a result of luck – it requires hard work and persistence.” The same is true in improv, in marketing, and in life.

5. Tell A Story.

Storytelling is everything in marketing. Marketing has to not only connect with a customer’s head but also their heart. Jennifer Aaker a social psychologist and marketing professor at Stanford tells us stories are remembered up to 22 times more than just relying on facts alone. Yes, facts can be important but they should facilitate your main theme, not drive it.

Good improvisers know a story needs to draw the audience in with the relationship dynamics and motivations between characters, not just facts or questions. No one will care that you’re explaining what you did at the fair, “We ate popcorn, then went on the tilt-a-whirl, then got sick, then went home.” They want to see what you did, they want to see your reactions and the reactions of the people you’re with. “Oh gosh Jeremy, did you have to drink a gallon of carrot juice before we left for Six Flags! You covered me in carrot pulp.” Telling someone a bulleted list of “things” isn’t going to cut it. Show them.

In marketing, whether you’re in a pitch meeting with a client or setting up an advertising campaign on Facebook, show your audience what you’re going to do for them. Show the venture capital board a vision for the future (in this example, punctuating your story with financial proof doesn’t hurt either), show them how they can get from where they are to where they want to be. When advertising, build a compelling ad by finding those unconscious motivators your audience has been striving towards. Put into words the emotional underpinning that a large group of people can relate to in different ways.

In Conclusion

We’ve covered a few improv lessons that will help you improve your marketing skills:

Truly listen instead of preparing to speak.
Agree and add to ideas. Don’t shut down a conversation when brainstorming.
Don’t be afraid of having bad ideas and failing. You are not your ideas.
Make your peers look awesome. Good marketing is about relationships.
Tell a story, don’t just rely on facts to sell something.

If you have interest in improving your communication skills, sales techniques, or just want to improve your public speaking, improv is a great way to do that.