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Stand Up and Throw Away the Script

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Harvard Management Communication Letter

Stand Up and Throw Away the Script by Susan G. Parker

Harvard Management Communication Letter

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Stand Up and Throw Away the Script
How improv can improve your team’s performance

clauses in construction contracts, which are much bigger projects and businesses have real problems if a building isn’t ready.” The manager affirmed that he used the clauses for construction. Hogenson explained that his company would do its best to get the product delivered within eight weeks but that sometimes things happened that were out of its control. Hogenson asked for an extension of the delivery time to 14 weeks. He also asked the manager to lower the penalty to something more in line with the size of the project. The manager agreed to lower it to $5,000, and they signed the contract. “When you are performing in an improv, you are working without a net with a partner on stage,” Hogenson says. “They will make a statement about you, and you never negate them. You affirm them, just like I affirm what the client says. Then I add some more information.”

t happens all too often in meetings. Someone has an idea that sounds good but no one wants to let him outshine the rest of the group. So others at the table start to chime in with “Well, yes, but…” and list the reasons why that idea can never work.


Reaching out, going beyond
“Improvisation is all about working with other people to make something bigger and better than something that either one of you could do alone,” says Chet Harding, director of corporate training for Improv Asylum in Boston. “Improvisation techniques help people to listen better.” The techniques can also make negotiations go more smoothly, says Marshall Hogenson, a corporate accounts sales manager for Esko-Graphics, a Belgian electronic prepress company whose North American headquarters are in Kennesaw, Ga. Hogenson spends 45 weeks a year traveling, much of it selling his company’s products to various clients. He has taken several improvisational classes from Stevie Ray’s Improv Company and used to do standup himself. Hogenson negotiates sales contracts with purchasing managers. In one case, a manager wanted to include a clause requiring that if the product was not delivered on time, Hogenson’s company would pay $50,000 a day in penalties. This was for a $500,000 product; thus, even one day of penalty would have wiped out 10% of the company’s profit. “One thing that I learned from improvisation that I use in negotiation is that I almost never say ‘no’ or ‘can’t,’ even when I see a ridiculous clause in a purchasing contract,” Hogenson says. “In this case, I told the manager that I understood that a late delivery could hold up his business. I asked if he typically had these

This kind of deflating interaction not only stops creativity, it can destroy a whole team. But a new breed of communication specialists is entering the corporate world to train workers to deal with such scenes: improvisational actors. While the word improvisation conjures up images of standup comedy, these improv companies are training businesses around the country in using their techniques to improve communication, build teams, solve problems, and effect strategic change. “There is a strong rule in improvisation that there can be no star,” says Stevie Ray, executive director of Stevie Ray’s Improv Company in Minneapolis, which provides corporate improvisation training. “If the team doesn’t win in improv, the individual doesn’t win.” The improv experts say the skills needed for successful business communication are much like those needed for great improv: the ability to listen closely and work with other people to build something better than what anyone could do solo. Even if your company can’t spend the money or time to bring in an improvisational troupe, there are improv techniques you can adapt for your everyday life in the office.

From connections come solutions
A central tenet of improvisation, the actors say, is to answer an idea with “Yes, and….” That means that whatever idea someone comes up with, a partner or a group must affirm the idea and build on it. In one exercise in his corporate training, Ray has someone pose a problem the company might be facing, such as no one showing up for work on time.

Improv exercises help teams solve problems together better.
The next person must propose a solution that makes no sense, like requiring everyone to wear purple to work. The person after that must link the ideas in some way that offers a solution to the problem. For example, when people wear purple, they feel

Copyright © 2003 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.


Using Improv Techniques, continued

more excited and therefore drive to work faster. When teams practice such exercises over time, they begin solving problems together more easily, Ray says. “So many times in business we respond to an idea with ‘Yes, but…,’ and immediately find reasons why an idea might not work,” says Richard A. Krezwick, president and chief operating officer of the FleetCenter, a large entertainment and sports complex in Boston whose executives were trained by the Improv Asylum. “The improvisation training helped us shatter that. As the champion of this cause, it gave me a tool to suppress negativity. Now when someone throws out a negative response, I can say, ‘Give me a “Yes and….”’” Businesses also use improv training for team building. For example, deLille Anthony, a market intelligence manager at Southern Company, an electric utility based in Atlanta, noticed that her employees did not always work well together. They did not always acknowledge others’ contributions or realize how others perceived them. She signed herself and her team of nine up for a two-day workshop in improvisation. In one exercise, the group had to create a human machine. One person started by making a motion. The next had to jump in and add a movement related to the original one. Great idea, but there was one problem. “There were always one or two people who wouldn’t jump in,” says Anthony. “We weren’t getting it completed.” Afterward, the same employees acknowledged that at work they tend to hang back and wait for the perfect moment to contribute. Anthony says that she used this exercise as a way to illustrate to these employees that if they don’t jump in with their ideas, the whole team can fail.

Improv techniques with a business spin
Jumping in, of course, can be frightening at first. But improvisation teachers insist that the first rule of their craft is to trust yourself. They offer these further tips for using improvisation techniques in the workplace: Slow down to “think on your feet.” “Anyone who says they want to learn to think on their feet is already thinking too fast,” says Greg Hohn, director of Transactors Improv Company in Chapel Hill, N.C., and an adjunct lecturer in communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “Their minds go a zillion miles an hour. They are flooded with ideas and with analyzing and censoring each idea. When we’re on stage, we’re not thinking fast, we’re thinking slowly and efficiently. We see an idea, and we commit to that idea. What people have to do is grab one idea.” That is particularly true in negotiations, says Hogenson. “It’s not so much that you think but that you don’t

In another case, employees at a Web marketing company felt bullied by a client, a financial organization. In an improvisational training session, the marketing team developed a sketch called “How to Deal with an Untameable Client.” Through that, they realized that they needed to communicate more with their client about their progress so that the client would not be so anxious and call them constantly. “It seems so simple in retrospect, but in the middle of it you don’t come up with the simplest solutions because you are overwhelmed,” O’Rourke says. Practice working as a team together. Teams can be teams in name only. If a team meets only right before an important client meeting, it can be clear to the client that the team is not a cohesive unit. Each member might know her part of the project but next to nothing about what the other members do. One way to strengthen group cohesion is to play a word-association game. Someone throws out a word related to the client. The next team member has to say a word that is connected to the client or to someone else’s idea. After doing this awhile, teams will find they are functioning more smoothly as a unit because members have learned to respond to one another’s cues better. Another exercise is to make up a story, one word at a time. Each person has to build on the story, and all contributions move the story ahead. Make a complex story simple. In his workshops, Ray often poses as a Pilgrim newly arrived on the Mayflower. He asks participants to explain something modern to him, such as a microwave oven, in way that a Pilgrim could understand. It turns out to be much harder than anyone thinks. A box that cooks? That makes waves, like the ocean? The exercise helps people learn to explain

Word-association games can help team members pick up on one another’s cues. think. If you are thinking about what you are going to say all the time, you are not in the moment. You’re thinking about the next words coming out of your mouth.” Understand your cast of characters. Janice O’Rourke, who uses improvisational techniques to coach executives through The Actor’s Institute in New York City, often has clients recreate a scene with actors standing in for colleagues. Like a director, O’Rourke will stop a scene in progress to point out, for instance, that someone cuts off his colleague whenever the colleague comes up with a new idea.


H A R VA R D M A N A G E M E N T C O M M U N I C AT I O N L E T T E R F E B R U A R Y 2 0 0 3

Using Improv Techniques, continued

a complicated subject to someone who does not know much about it. Take the word but out of your vocabulary. “By their very nature, the words but and however compare two ideas,” says Ray. “One idea must win, which risks damaging the relationship.” In contrast, “so and and force you to make two ideas work together—‘You’re right that this will cost more money, so why don’t we….’ Not using but or however forces me to speak and think in ways that marry two ideas together.” Learn to talk to a customer like you would to a friend over coffee. Customer service representatives at Northwest Airlines bear the brunt of passengers’ ire over missed flights and lost luggage. In the course of dealing with a complaint, they would repeat back what the customer said to

them—“So if I understand you correctly, you are upset because your flight is delayed.” They discovered that this tended to make the customer even more upset, especially since understanding the customer wasn’t that difficult. And repeating the complaint didn’t go one step closer to solving the problem that caused it. That strategy is about “distancing yourself,” says Ray, who conducted several workshops with Northwest's customer service reps—hardly the best way to placate someone who’s frustrated and upset. He said to them: “How would you talk to a friend who lost their luggage? You would say something like ‘Oh God, I’m really sorry. Where are you going?’ You would never say, ‘I can certainly understand your frustration

and every attempt is being made to rectify the situation.’ Which person would you believe? Which person would you trust? “Improv is focused on reality,” he says. “You have to find out what the person needs. It takes a lot of slowing down the brain and listening.” Be willing to make mistakes. A key part of improvisation is understanding that you’ll make mistakes. Sometimes a sketch does not work, and sometimes the first idea does not either. Accept that mistakes are a natural, inevitable part of the creative process, and start over. ❑
Susan G. Parker is a freelance reporter living and working in Cambridge, Mass. She can be reached at

H A R VA R D M A N A G E M E N T C O M M U N I C AT I O N L E T T E R F E B R U A R Y 2 0 0 3


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...SHOOTING SCRIPT FADE IN: DAWN. CRASHING SURF. The waves TOSS a BEARDED MAN onto wet sand. He lies there. A CHILD’S SHOUT makes him LIFT his head to see: a LITTLE BLONDE BOY crouching, back towards us, watching the tide eat a SANDCASTLE. A LITTLE BLONDE GIRL joins the boy. The Bearded Man tries to call them, but they RUN OFF, FACES UNSEEN. He COLLAPSES. The barrel of a rifle ROLLS the Bearded Man onto his back. A JAPANESE SECURITY GUARD looks down at him, then calls up the beach to a colleague leaning against a JEEP. Behind them is a cliff, and on top of that, a JAPANESE CASTLE. INT. ELEGANT DINING ROOM, JAPANESE CASTLE - LATER The Security Guard waits as an ATTENDANT speaks to an ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN sitting at the dining table, back to us. ATTENDANT (in Japanese) He was delirious. But he asked for you by name. And... (to the Security Guard) Show him. SECURITY GUARD (in Japanese) He was carrying nothing but this... He puts a HANDGUN on the table. The Elderly Man keeps eating. SECURITY GUARD ...and this. The Security Guard places a SMALL PEWTER CONE alongside the gun. The Elderly Man STOPS eating. Picks up the cone. ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN (in Japanese) Bring him here. And some food. INT. SAME - MOMENTS LATER The Elderly Man watches the Bearded Man WOLF down his food. He SLIDES the handgun down the table towards him. ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN (in English) Are you here to kill me? The Bearded Man glances up at him, then back to his food. 2. The Elderly Japanese Man picks up......

Words: 28494 - Pages: 114

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Script for Hs

...A WALK TO REMEMBER by Nicholas Sparks (Part 1) The homecoming dance was coming up, and because of the whole Angela situation, I still don’t have a date. I called a couple of girls I knew but they already had dates, so I called a few more. They had dates, too. By the final week the pickings were getting pretty slim. The pool was down to the kinds of girls who had thick glasses and talked with lisps. My mom knew what I was going through, and she finally came into my room. Cynthia: So Landon, do you have a date for the dance? Landon: Umm. Haven’t found anyone yet. Cynthia: My poor baby has no date for the homecoming. Landon: Mom! Cynthia: Don’t worry honey, sooner or later you’ll find someone. (leaves the room) (but before she leaves, turns around and calls…) Cynthia: Oh Landon! Landon: Yeah? Cynthia: If you can’t find anyone. I’ll be willing to be your date. Landon: MOM!!!! Cynthia: Just kidding. Good luck honey. So there I was, flipping through the pages in the junior class section, and I ended up with her, the reverend’s daughter, Jamie Sullivan. I thought, she isn’t bad looking, and she’s really sweet, she’d say yes to me, wouldn’t she? (Scene shifts to Landon walking to Jamie’s house) I went to their house after school. I was thinking of something decent to say. Something like, “Hey, babe, wanna be my date?” or something like. “ Yow, wanna date me?”Nope. not that.“ Hey Jamie, would you like to be my date?” Yeah that would do. Jamie: Landon, this is a surprise!......

Words: 3323 - Pages: 14

Stupeň 8: Armageddon (2013) | Ben Loyd-Holmes | Avery Brooks