“In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter cup, or Botox.”
-Tina Fey, Bossypants
Improv is a form of theater or comedy in which the actors create their scenes (and lines) spontaneously on the spot, in the moment, unrehearsed in front of a live audience (and usually based on a suggested word or theme from the audience). There are many school of improv and various gurus have defined their own sets of rules for improv, but here are the rules I was taught when I studied and taught improv in Minneapolis in the 1990s:
- Trust yourself, trust your instincts
- Say “yes, and”
- Learn from your questions; make statements
- If you get stuck, move!
- Listen, watch and concentrate
- Give your best
- Be clear and specific
- Give and take
When you study “improv,” you practice using the rules of improv by doing exercises (playing games) and making scenes over and over and over, always new and different, while your instructor barks out the rules if you break them. Very soon, you begin to realize your own barriers to thinking on the spot and you face your fear of saying the wrong thing, being a deer in the headlights, or looking the fool. Because, as Tina Fey says, there are no mistakes in improv, you soon learn to relax and trust yourself, and this experience is very powerful.
When I started studying improv, the first thing I did was I tried to pre-plan everything I would say and do, which is the complete opposite of what improv training is all about. I had so much fear about being wrong or going blank that I tried to predict what might happen and create multiple plans in my head before I was called upon to speak. Of course, this kind of pre-planning doesn’t work in improv, because you can’t predict what others will say or do, and you need to be present in the moment to hear what the other actors say and to concentrate on what they are doing, so that you can react to and add to the scene. It took me several weeks before I could start to let go of my need to pre-plan and take the risk of trusting myself to react in the moment. Once I did, I discovered a whole new arsenal of mental power and emotional confidence that I applied immediately to my professional work as a lawyer. This experience was the basis for the professional skills development workshops I developed called Think on the Spot. The rules of improv can help all of us in our communication, adaptability, resilience, creativity, collaboration, public speaking, listening skills, and more.
Toni Halleen is President and Founder of Fun with Law. She has been teaching and training professionals since 1989, during which time she has also been an improvisation performer. She has combined her talents into a new approach to professional development. Toni’s “Think on The Spot”™ seminars are presented across the country, and are designed to build listening, thinking, communication, team-building, and presentation skills for professionals. Working with organizations, Toni makes training more fun and engaging, and also works as a communications coach to help individuals and teams to be more effective under pressure.