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How Improv Can Help You Achieve Your Goals

Much has been written on the art of saying “No”. Learning how to say no to things is often a key to personal and professional success – not over-committing helps you to avoid under-performing, and saying “no” when it comes to people asking you to perform work for free can help you maintain both your sanity and your bank account.

But saying “yes” can be just as important.

Last night I was excited to be invited to check out a wild card round at the Canadian Improv Games. 5 high schools from Ottawa were competing for a final slot in tonight’s Ottawa finals, where the winner will move on to a national level competition. It was a great show – full of enthusiastic students giving their all, improvising their way through many types of scenarios – some hilariously funny, others more serious.

Yes, and…

There’s a basic rule of improv, called the “yes, and” rule. Essentially it means to never deny your fellow actor, and to be accepting of the ideas they convey. This helps give your partners something to grasp onto in order to continue to move the story forward. For example, Actor 1 might say “Boy, this shopping mall sure is full of zombies!” Actor 2 could respond, “Yes, and it looks like we don’t have any weapons.” Actor 1 can say, “Yes, and I guess we will need to start running or something!”. “Yes, and” means you accept what is presented to you, then continue to add your own insight to the conversation.

If actors didn’t use “yes, and” in improv, it wouldn’t work too well. Actor 1: “Boy, this shopping mall sure is full of zombies!” Actor 2: “What do you mean? We’re not in a shopping mall and there’s no such thing as zombies!”. The story is dead in the water.

Are you killing your own story before it begins?

When you take on something that’s new to you – starting a blog, learning how to use your new smart phone, or preparing to give a speech for the first time, there’s a lot you don’t know about the story. It hasn’t been invented yet. You think of all the possibilities – how great it will be to write more often, how much more productive you’ll be when you have a handle on using your new gadget, or how you’ll feel inspiring others from a stage. It’s exciting.

Then fear and reality sets in. You aren’t a really great writer. Your phone is dinging at you and you don’t know why. You wonder if people will care about what you have to say.

You say “no” before you even get started. This is one of the primary reasons why people stop trying to do new things. They turn their backs before they even get started, because they don’t have all the answers. Improvisation is about not knowing the outcome, but moving forward despite the risk.

Improvise, overcome.

What if you started adopting a “yes, and” attitude to new things? What if you were less afraid to improvise? Let’s take your blog as an example. You could say “I want to start a new blog”, then immediately say “but I can’t write”. Dead in the water.

Or, you could try using the improv technique, like so:

“I want to start a new blog.”
“Yes, and I’m not a very good writer.”
“Yes, and not every blog is about writing.”
“Yes, and I do have this camera here. I think it makes video too.”
“Yes, and I’ve never used it for that.”
“Yes, and I guess I could start by hitting this button and seeing what happens.”
“Yes, and I could point it at things and tell stories about what I see.”
“Yes, and then post that on my blog.”
“Yes, and maybe the writing part will come later.”

See where I’m going with this? It’s all about improvising.

Too many of us try to wait until we have all the answers in order to move forward on the things we want to do. We wait for that perfect inspiration, the exact right set of circumstances, or that perfect job to come along. Like in improv, very rarely is your situation going to be perfect. You don’t know what is coming next, so ultimately, the only thing you can do is wing it.

The secret sauce that improv actors have is that they appear to be totally winging it, but in fact they are highly trained. They use techniques like “yes, and” to help craft stories without knowing the outcome.

What if you applied a bit of that secret sauce to the things you want to do? What if you took a “yes, and” approach to that thing you want to get started with, but just can’t seem to take that first step?

How would the outcome of your story change if you improvised a bit more?

Oh, and by the way, if you’re in the Ottawa area, and looking to get really inspired by improv, check out this Improv show on February 7th presented by Cracking Up the Capital Comedy Festival (Disclosure: I’m on the Board). It stars Colin Mochrie (you know, from “Whose Line is it Anyway?”) and the superfantastic improv teams from the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. Not only will you laugh out loud, and feel good supporting the Youth Services Bureau and the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre, but you may also learn a few things about the art of improvisation.

Still need inspiration? Here’s Colin in action on “Whose Line is it Anyway?”.

Photo Credit: Joe Shlabotnik via Compfight cc

6 Comments

  1. Yes and I love this perspective. Really glad I read it. It just may get a certain post out of draft status.

  2. I love this. Wonderfully inspirational! Thank-you.

  3. Pingback: Improv for Startups - Jumpstart Foundry

  4. Chaselynn Beard

    I think that the idea of “yes and” is incredibly helpful to those who are a little hesitant. I find myself second guessing my choices or ideas that I have for school assignments because I am never sure if they are good enough. This idea, though, helps me relax and just let things flow. It makes ideas come easier and lets me get more things accomplished because I’m not stopping everything before I even start. Thank you for your post!

  5. Pingback: How improv can help start-ups and anyone in business.

  6. Pingback: Who Actually Won "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"? - Lez Get Real

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