“The skills we apply on stage — things like working as a team, building on ideas, thinking on our feet, communication — those apply to more than just comedy. We can also apply them to the business world,” says Lillian Frances, owner of Chicago Comedy Company, where she runs corporate training and development workshops for businesses based on the rules of improvisational comedy.
For those unfamiliar with it (or who’ve never seen “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”), improvisational comedy — or improv, for short — involves a group of people creating comedy on the spot, getting suggestions from the audience and immediately creating a scene. Because it is unscripted, improv teaches those who practice it how to think on their feet, listen to others and be team players — skills that come in handy in the business world as well.
It’s no wonder so many companies rely on improv as a way to train their employees with crucial business skills and build stronger teams. Chicago Comedy Company is just one of many companies that offer corporate improv workshops for companies of every size and industry. (Second City, iO and UCB are also known for their corporate training programs.)
Saying “Yes, and…”
Perhaps one of the most valuable skills improv teaches is the ability to say “yes,” a concept that has become foreign to many of us today. “In the real world, people tend to say ‘no’ a lot, so when we talk about “yes, and…” [one of the basic tenets of improv] and embracing a new idea, it’s pretty mind-blowing for people,” Frances says.
To help people understand the “yes, and…” concept, Frances pairs people up and asks them to start a conversation where every time someone speaks, they must start by saying, “No.” Then they start a second conversation, where every sentence must start with “Yes, but…” Finally, a third conversation starts, wherein every sentence begins with “Yes, and…” The point of the exercise is to help people see what it feels like to hear “no” all the time — and how powerful saying “yes” can be in opening up the lines of communication and generating ideas.
At Chicago Comedy Company, the customizable workshops can last anywhere from a few days to one hour. No matter the length, however, the results are pretty powerful. Frances says the transformation she sees in people from the beginning of the workshop to the end is “amazing.”
Not your ordinary training program
One thing that makes improv so effective as a business training tool, Frances says, is the fun, interactive approach. “With these workshops, employees aren’t just listening to a lecture — they’re actively doing these exercises, so they remember it more.”
Still, these trainings are most successful when they reach all parts of the organization. “You can teach all of HR about ‘yes, and…,’ but if it’s not ingrained in the entire corporate culture, it’s not going to be as effective,” Frances says. And that includes leadership as well.