Improvisation, or improv, is a form of live theatre, often comedy, in which most or all of what is performed is unplanned or unscripted: created spontaneously by the performers. In its purest form, the dialogue, action, story, and characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in the present moment.
I have taught, directed, performed, and authored books about interactive improvisation and improv comedy for forty years. I have learned over that time that there is an uncanny similarity between the rules and lessons that make improv work and the ones that make life work. Maybe that’s because life itself is an improvisation.
The same principles that make someone a good improvisor can also be applied to your professional life, where they can actually help you succeed.
The skills I have learned have made me a better employee, better entrepreneur, and a better, more confident, more joyful and happier person. Here are twenty-one of my favorite improv rules that have helped me in my life and professional career and can help you too.
1. Listen to the person in front of you, instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next. Improvisors don’t “think up” ideas in their head, they use their mind’s amazing capability to associate and incorporate ideas. Listen to others, trust your self, and ideas will spring forth.
2. Listen more than you speak. Remember you can’t be listening if you are talking. People love to be heard, therefore they appreciate a good listener. If you listen, you can respond in kind, and truly become part of the conversation.
3. Open your eyes and pay attention to the world around you, and use what’s in front of you – that will greatly improve your work, no matter what it is that you do for a living.
4. Spend less time overthinking, and more time simply being. We falsely believe that our conscious mind runs everything, it does not. Get out of your head and live in the moment. Trusting your unconscious mind can even help you stop anxiety.
5. Putting other people down will not make you look better. In fact, putting other people down will get you nowhere.
6. Nothing is as infectious as watching joyful people do what they love. This rule speaks for itself. Be joyful and love what you do.
7. Ultimately, all that any of us want is to connect with others. If life were a crime, this would be the motive. Be a good detective and follow the lead.
8. Go after that which scares you the most; your fear is trying to tell you something. If you run from your fear, it will chase you forever, but if you turn and embrace it, it will dissolve in your arms and leave you something important. If you want to live big, do something that terrifies you every day.
9. Be kind, even to those you cannot stand. Just because someone is unlikeable, doesn’t mean you have to be mean. In fact, you never know when they may be in a position to help you. Never burn a bridge, ever.
10. The most important thing is to be truthful. Say what you feel, mean what you say. Authentic people are rarely misunderstood.
11. When you make others look good, you look good. Trust, support, and cooperation are the hallmarks of good improv technique. That basically means make the other person look good. This makes you a very sought-after partner. And, when they do the same for you, magic happens!
12. Don’t ask questions all the time, make statements instead. If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers. In other words, whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag
13. Don’t waste energy trying to turn other people into your competition. “Competition” is a finite game, one that concludes with a winner and a loser. Life is more of an infinite game where the rules shift to provide unending resourceful play. If you want to compete, go play football. If you want to succeed, spend your energy making allies, not opponents.
14. The majority of people are rooting for you, not against you. Most people don’t go to a movie hoping it’s bad. In the same way, most anyone who depends on your results wants you to succeed, and the ones rooting against you are probably doing so because of some deep-rooted conflict within themselves.
15. Show. Don’t tell. Showing what you can do instead of simply talking about it can bring your career to life, too. In the workplace, no one will be impressed if you just claim you’re the best at something: You have to take action and deliver. In fact, don’t even bother boring them with how great you are, better to let them discover it on their own.
16. Every person you meet has something to teach you. Children are sponges, and learn incredibly fast. That’s because their ego isn’t developed enough to get in the way. There is no reason that an adult cannot approach others with the same curiosity.
17. Everyone else’s opinions and experiences are equally as important as yours. Allowing yourself to be fascinated by the different opinions and experiences of others can only broaden your own.
18. It is okay that others will be better than you at certain things; you will also be better than them at certain things. Appreciating another’s superior abilities costs you nothing. Sharing each other’s strengths is the fastest way for you both to improve.
19. Criticizing other people’s ideas only makes you a tiresome presence to be around. Anyone can negate an idea; it doesn’t make you smart. Instead of responding with a “no, but” try responding with a “yes, if.”
20. Every mistake is a gift. Every obstacle is an opportunity. Once you realize that mistakes are a necessary part of discovery, and obstacles are a necessary part of achievement, you are able to see them as puzzles and opportunities. Life then becomes less of an ordeal and more of an adventure.
21. Don’t be an ass. No one wants to spend time on stage, or in real life, with an ass.