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Re-Thinking Training

When you hear the word “improvisation” or “improv”, what do you think of? Many think of comedy, like Whose Line Is It Anyway? or Saturday Night Live, which would be correct. However, comedy is only one byproduct of improv. The art and/or science of improv can be applied to so much more, especially staff training. The reality is that we improvise every day of our lives – some of us more than others. Webster.com defines “improvise” as: “to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously; to make, invent, or arrange offhand; to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand.” And from the Latin word of improvisus, it literally means “unforeseen”. Isn’t it fair to say that we all encounter the “unforeseen” on a regular basis in our daily jobs and lives? How we deal (or improvise) with the unforeseen is the true test for how successful and effective we will be with our internal and external customers and everyone can improve a variety of skills through improv training.

Using improv techniques and exercises in staff training continues to grow as a popular option in soft skills training in today’s economic climate. This type of soft skills training “re-trains” the brain to actively listen, be open to ideas, respond quickly in the moment, collaborate, effectively use emotions, be more engaging, be flexible to change and be more hyperaware of what’s going on around us. All of these skills contribute to increasing productivity and revenue while building authentic relationships with everyone we work with. Improv humanizes us by reminding us of our core values and beliefs that we sometimes forget about because we put walls up. People want to connect with each other in just about every industry. Customers want to buy from people they like. While many brick-and-mortar retailers lose business to online purchasing options, many industries thrive when they create a connection with their clients and this requires interpersonal communication skills.

In the comedy world, improvisers are trained with skills to spontaneously create a script based on audience suggestions. They rely on fellow improvisers to collaborate ideas together, while making each other look good, for the purpose of pleasing the audience with the bonus of relishing in their abilities to deliver a memorable experience. And while they (and all of us) are born with these skills we tend to lose them because we don’t practice them the way we did as children. If you observe children you will notice that they are the best improvisers with the best imaginations. They don’t censor themselves. They don’t worry about being judged for their off-the-wall ideas or imaginary friends. They truly have fun in the moment. As adults we are encouraged to NOT behave in these ways and this weakens our natural skills to improvise and use skills we already possess.

Improv training is not new. It really picked up momentum in the 1950s when a woman named Viola Spolin developed exercises or “games” for actors to unleash creativity with a focus on “play” to unlock the individual’s capacity for creative self expression. Her book “Improvisation for the Theater” became the foundation for theatrical and improvisation training and this ultimately led to the birth of Second City and Saturday Night Live. In the world of “applied improv”, the use of improv training has been applied to every industry imaginable. While the techniques are not new and trendy, the technique applications are always unique, based on the objectives of the subject matter being taught or presented. By participating in improv training, people are able to re-capture the skills necessary to provide excellent customer service, sell more effectively, build relationships, communicate better, brainstorm ideas, lighten up and get along better with others.

Improvisation improves training and is a perfect fit for any business, with the following benefits:

Learning By Doing: Studies show that we retain more information when we physically apply what we are learning. By applying improv activities to content, the experience is more memorable, motivational and engaging. Instead of sitting through lectures and “death by PowerPoint”, improv allows for the opportunity for people to learn in chunks of time by getting up and applying an exercise to something that was just presented. For example, in an exercise called “First Word/Last Word”, participants work in pairs to have grammatically incorrect conversations for the purpose of learning how to actively listen to every word they are speaking to each other. If one person says “I like ice cream”, his/her exercise partner has to start the next line of dialogue with the word “cream” and might say “Cream in my coffee tastes good” and so on. As a team they have to focus on listening to each and every word to accomplish the exercise. The true learning occurs during the post discussion (“debrief”) of the exercise, led by a trained facilitator, to help the participants understand what they learned from the exercise. Just the simple question of “How did that feel?” by the facilitator opens all kinds of feelings and emotions, such as “I had to be in the moment. I couldn’t think ahead about what I wanted to say. As soon as I had a new idea, my partner changed it with their own idea.” Do this exercise enough and active listening will increase immensely.

Fun, Laughter and Team Development: Many participants of improv training are often uncomfortable in the very beginning of a training until they realize that they are all in it together, meaning they are all feeling uncomfortable, silly and awkward. A good facilitator creates a safe environment to make it okay to feel this way, to make it okay to fail in front of others. Ultimately this leads to laughter and camaraderie and higher learning retention. Improv exercises also help to break down barriers of participants who are resistant to training, while helping to relieve anxiety and fear.

Personality Profiling: Using improv exercises, also called “games”, is a great indicator of personalities, providing that you are hyperaware and observant of behaviors. Improv can be used to learn if employees are “in the right seat on the bus” by displaying their abilities to communicate, play well with others, be in the moment, stay focused, commit to the task at hand and much more. Additionally, improv improves the ability to “read” people quickly, including verbal and non-verbal communication. Aside from training, improv exercises can be used in an interview process or in effectively assessing clients’ needs.

Being Centered and “In The Moment”: Many of us are “boxed” into a corporate way of thinking, yet still need to balance a holistic approach to running a business. Improv training helps employees come up with creative and positive ways to approach company culture, customer service and quick, mindful thinking. It also helps staff members to focus in 100% on a client, instead of talking to co-workers during a service or texting in front of clients, etc. Dedicating full attention to internal and external customers will build relationships and improve the bottom line.

Being A Good Partner: To be successful in business today, it’s essential to become “partners” with clients by adding value to their experiences. Being able to “think outside of the box” to uncover client needs will help grow a business and there are many improv exercises that focus on re-training the brain to “explore and heighten” ideas. In improv we also stress the importance to treat others like “rock stars” – we use exercises that focus on treating others like they are amazing and in turn we will look amazing for doing so. It’s about engagement and engaging clients to come back.

There are a variety of tools and learning resources available to learn how to apply effective and engaging improv to training programs. The best resources are local improv classes and workshops led by improv practitioners. Classes will get you in the mindset for this style of training. Also, bringing in an improv training company to facilitate staff training is a great way to get everyone involved instead of a manager having to lead it – this also puts management in a light of “rolling up their sleeves” to participate with the team. While improv can be read about or watched on YouTube videos, the best way to learn how to use it is to “Do it,” a common phrase in improv. We often say, “Don’t talk about building a boat. Build the boat. Show us.” If you want to read about the improv experience there are many books available including the aforementioned “Improv For The Theater” by Viola Spolin, plus “Training To Imagine” by Kat Koppett, “Business Improv” by Val and Sarah Gee and “Improvisation, Inc.” by Robert Lowe. A great website to explore is www.appliedimprov.ning.com

We all understand the importance of ROI and you might be wondering how to measure or benchmark the success of improv training. The best way to measure improv training is my monitoring sales and comment cards after continuous training. One improv session will not increase sales overnight. To be successful at anything we do, we need to practice. Whether it’s yoga, massage or customer service, practicing techniques over time will increase competency and productivity. The same thing is true for improv. Investing in improv training that improves listening, emoting, relating, supporting and thinking will lead to repeat customers who spend more money, while recommending and endorsing your business. Additionally, employee turnover will remain low and effectiveness will remain high. Who wouldn’t want to work somewhere where learning and laughter is encouraged?!