So, I started an Improv 101 class last night…
Here’s where I might warm up and tell you all my reasons for doing it, but that’d be boring, so let’s move on.
Instead, I’ll reflect on a few things I either learned or was reminded of in my first class. Both as our instructor riffed on the fundamentals of good improv, and as I got in there and did my first couple scenes.
And because so many people who actually come to improv do it to lead better lives and succeed in other areas, that’s where we’ll go with it.
Here are seven (plus one!) success lessons I re-discovered in my first night of Improv 101.
- Living a good life is all about the “Yes, and…”
One of the first — if not THE first — rules of improv is that you always respond to new details anyone adds to the scene with a “Yes, and…”
There’s a great moment recorded at Google where Tina Fey is talking to Eric Schmidt (former Chairman, CEO, resident grown-up).
Eric’s trying to do improv with Tina. And he says, “Stop, I’ve got a gun…”
Tina replies, “The gun I gave you for our wedding anniversary — how could you?”
Eric turns around, embarrassed, and shouts, “We’re not married!”
He killed the scene. He took something that was reality, in that moment, and denied it.
He met the details Tina brought to the scene with a “No.”
How should he have responded? In literally any way that acknowledged the reality they were living in that moment, in that scene, and went with it.
A starting place for living a good life, successful by any means, is looking at what reality is bringing to the table, and rolling with it. “Yes, and…”
After the class, I was talking to our instructor about his calico cat (because she looks almost exactly like mine), who he said had lost an eye at birth. He said she’d adapted and was doing just fine without it. That’s living life with a “Yes, and…” attitude.
- All greatness is based on principles…
Most people think improv is just a bunch of wannabe actors and comedians hopping on stage and winging it.
Tim (our instructor) even talked about a fundraiser he was helping a friend with, where three supposedly experienced improv troupes clearly hopped on stage to do just that — wing it. Because they didn’t know any better, or something. And they were not funny. Or entertaining. Or good. They were painful. Yes, that’s the word. Painful. And Tim wasn’t the only person who thought so.
Tim said if only they’d understood the basic rules…
I mentioned above that “Yes, and…” is maybe the first rule of improv — that you must accept the information you’re given.
There are actually three more main rules (although others have longer or shorter lists, this is a pretty good one).
— You must fully commit to the scene, while you’re in it. Don’t break the scene, or your character.
— Add information to move the scene forward. You must add details that the other person has to respond to.
— Justify your details. That is, there needs to be a reason why for things to happen as they do, and it’s your job as the performer to give that reason why that makes it make sense.
Now, these are all great — and, in fact, we can probably grab a few lessons for marketing and selling out of them, but… That’s not what we’re going to do here.
Rather, recognize that this seemingly unruly form of acting is based on a set of rules, principles, and strategies that govern success. It takes understanding these principles and their application to really do this in way where it feels natural and like you’re not following any rules.
In first grade, I froze when I couldn’t remember my lines in the school talent show. I literally had them in a book in front of me, and I couldn’t even think to look down and read.
Ever since then, I guess I’ve tried to avoid shaming myself to quite the same level in a performance situation.
And, in fact, I’ve racked up a decent amount of hours presenting, being on stage, and even performing.
All this to say, by the time I was in the front of the room last night, I was relatively comfortable being there, and getting into the scene.
In one particular case, my counterpart in the scene was not nearly as comfortable. Every response he gave went a semitone higher in pitch. And it was clear that he’d basically stopped breathing between lines, as each response came out with a breathless exhale.
And since we’re there to help each other succeed, I told him to breathe.
It’s really easy when we’re stressed to forget to breathe. It’s a whole part of the stress reaction. It’s natural.
And yet, one of the best ways to get through stress is to take slow, deep breaths.
If you’re feeling uncomfortable, one of the best things you can do is to remember to take a deep breath. It really does wonders.
(And in improv or a speech or life, a pondered pause while you take a deep breath into your gut can actually add intrigue or drama to the situation, and you look better for it.)
- Presence is the most powerful skill…
Breathing helps with this one. So does some kind of meditation or mindfulness practice. And, I think improv as well as probably hostage negotiation are decent training grounds for it — although with vastly different outcomes in case of failure.
In any case, learning to be present with what’s going on in front of you — with all your senses and your attention — is powerful.
In improv, you’re constantly reacting to what’s going on in front of you, and it’s all new and raw from the imagination of those you’re in a scene with. If you’re NOT present, suddenly you’re adding details that contradict and/or make no sense at all with what’s been happening in the scene. Which creates confusion, and is seldom entertaining or funny.
On the other hand, when you practice presence, you have an incredible ability to meet life where it’s at, and make the best of it.
Your view of reality is less distorted. (I say less because, let’s be honest, we’ve all got pretty distorted views of reality.)
You honor the point of view of those you’re inter-acting with.
And everybody can work together for the best scene or outcome.
- Get out of your damn head…
It’s really, really easy when you’re trying something new to feel like you want to make the best first impression.
I see this everywhere from job fairs to selling situations to last night’s improv class (and Facebook, oh Facebook!).
You get so concerned by how you’re showing up, that you miss the fact that this preoccupation is hurting the way you’re showing up.
The great thing about being “an actOR” (*said in my best Count Olaf voice for those who get the reference) is that even a failure in a scene doesn’t have to reflect negatively on you.
Perpetual failure, and maybe that barista “day job” should be reconsidered as career path…
But failing from time to time comes with any craft.
A winning improv actor doesn’t let failing at one scene stop them from fully committing to the next. A winning quarterback doesn’t let one interception pollute their thoughts on the next possession. A winning marketer can have a total bomb in one campaign, and still they throw their all into making the next a massive success.
This is really all about the healthy ego concept I’ve written about before.
A healthy ego embraces failure, because it means you’re stretching yourself and trying new things. A healthy ego knows failing is not a character flaw, it’s a natural part of growth.
Sure, it hurts to bomb. But you learn what you can, then shake it off, and go back out there. And leave it all on the stage, or the field, or the page.
- Stories are about things actually happening…
My friend, the great copywriting coach David Garfinkel, shared this quote with me months ago, and it came back to me early in the improv class as we were doing story games…
“A story is the record of how someone deals with danger.”
Apparently it’s from Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, which is on a long list of books I haven’t gotten to yet. But I love the quote, and here’s the relevance to last night…
One of the games we were playing involved telling a story in a circle. Each of us would add a sentence when it came ‘round to us.
Here’s what I noticed…
Everybody was adding tiny details, and reactions. Which don’t hurt for fleshing out a story.
But I was quickly reminded of the Modern Fiction class I took in college. I was a haughtily-precocious academic writer. And I got my head handed to me when I wrote all detail and reactive introspection, instead of a real story.
“Modern readers don’t want to read that,” the professor told me with brutal honesty.
“Readers want action. They want characters that do things. And story that goes somewhere. Your detail and flowery language might have worked in the eighteenth century, but they don’t work today.”
The polar opposite of this is how Eugene Schwartz described a great action flick (as an inspiration for good sales copy). It starts with bullets flying. Then there’s a minute of story. Then, more bullets. And a few details to give context. Then bullets, and explosions…
You get the point.
So I took every opportunity I could in that story game to ratchet up the conflict and danger — or even just move the action forward.
I may have overdone it, once or twice. But nobody could deny the story took a big leap forward — for better or worse — every time I introduced a little chaos.
Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be talking about success principles… So… When you want to move your life forward, embrace and even introduce a little chaos, danger, and action. It does wonders.
- Bring your entire self to the performance…
Great characters have depth. There’s more to the character in what you don’t see and what’s only hinted the offhand remark or gesture, than in what’s actually there.
To pull this off, you have to be willing to bring all your experience, interest, and entire being into every character you play — even as that character is decidedly NOT you.
So if you’re a Trekkie, it’s okay if your characters make a couple Start Trek references.
If something from today’s news pops into your brain, loop it in as fits your role.
If you’re a nerd, be an even bigger nerd in the scene — or play 100% against that character.
Great characters are often larger-than-life representations of who we really are. Complete with our neuroses, hang-ups, and everything else that makes us US.
When I do copy reviews for more novice copywriters, this is often the first big mistake I see.
They learn all the techniques and tactics, and pull them off well. But there’s no soul there. There’s no personality. And so they fail to connect.
The opposite issue is actually more likely to lead to success, as Denny Hatch detailed in his excellent book, Method Marketing. An absolute rookie with almost no knowledge of technique but all the soul and passion for the message will sit down and write a massively-successful piece of persuasion, because they brought their entire self to it.
At the risk of dragging out a trite quote, reread this from Marianne Williamson…
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Stop playing small. Stop thinking you don’t have something to give. You do. And it’s YOU. Bring your entire self. It hurts, but that’s just your not-actualized-yet ego resisting change. I promise, the more you do it, the better it feels — until it’s pure bliss.
+1. Going low is cheap and easy, going high is harder and more rewarding…
I won’t go too far into this because I fear I’ve already overstayed my welcome (and my time is running all too long on writing this)…
But the point was fair. We were told at the beginning of class that it had a PG-13 rating.
It was a clear message. You couldn’t go to the vile and shocking for the easy laughs. (Although there was a recurring theme of vomit in last night’s class.) By playing within the bounds of keeping it clean, you had to push for a little bit smarter humor.
It’s not always easy to go high, when the easiest path is to go low.
But when you pull it off, there’s something to it that’s unmatched by any successes at walking the easy path.
And with that, you have my 7+1 success lessons from my first night of Improv 101!
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
PS: You can find a really great interview I did with David Garfinkel in the Masters of Response series. Also, if you’re interested in how to use story in selling and especially how to create a great character for selling, check out the Story Selling Master Class. And as always, you get access to ALL of it with a BTMSinsiders All-Access Pass.