How Tina Fey's Improv Rules Can Boost Your Business

Improv is a valuable skill for leaders, so much so that top business schools like MIT are offering a class in it. Who better to turn to for advice on improv than Tina Fey?
November 19, 2013

Improvisational comedy might seem like a strange place to turn to for lessons to help grow your small business. The power of improv, as most actors will tell you, comes from the learned skill of being able to think on your feet. Sound valuable? For several leading business schools, including MIT's Sloan School of Management and Duke's Fuqua School of Business, improv is interesting enough that professors are crafting courses for MBA students around the topic.

One of the most popular actresses today who credits improv comedy for at least part of her success is Tina Fey. In her bestselling book BossyPants, she lays out several rules of improv that she learned over many years first as part of the cast of Chicago-based improv group Second City, and later as a featured cast member of Saturday Night Live. Here are a few of those rules and the lessons they can offer your business.

"The first rule of improvisation is agree."

In an hour long, frequently awkward interview with Google's former CEO Eric Schmidt, Fey tells the story of being at Second City and hearing a legendary story of Joan Rivers acting in an improv scene that started with the line "I want a divorce." Her counterpart replied, "But what about the children?" to which she responded, "We don't have any children!" It got a big laugh, but it also ended the scene. Agreeing is about accepting the premise your partner is sharing so you can continue the conversation.

The Lesson: Accept reality. When you're first interacting with a potential or new customer, they may start by sharing with you a description of their situation and the challenges they face. Your immediate tempatation may be to solve them immediately or at least suggest alternatives for them to try. Accepting their reality means avoiding this temptation and instead agreeing and letting them share the issues they're most impacted by. You will get your chance later to help offer solutions.

"The second rule of improvisation is not only to say 'yes,' but 'yes, and ...'"

Great improv scenes steadily build the story. Yes or no questions or statements are conversation killers. Instead, using the "yes, and" principle allows you to take a scene from its beginning and continually evolve it while avoiding introducing a tangent that doesn't make sense. "Yes, and" gives you a thread that runs through a scene.

The Lesson: Always build upward. When you think of conversations as improv scenes, you realize that using the principle of "yes, and" can help you to grow a conversation deeper. The benefit of this is that the deeper conversations you have, the more likely you are to uncover a connection or need that you can address in the solution you provide. Not to mention, deeper conversations lead to better experiences and make it more likely your customers will refer you to others and generate positive word of mouth for your business.

"The next rule is make statements."

It's easy to respond to statements in an improv scene with questions. For example, if a scene starts with, "I can't wait to take my flight today," the question response might be, "Where are you going?" The problem with that is that it rapidly turns a scene into an interview, where all the pressure is on the person who starts to add more dimension to the scene. Instead of using questions, making statements leads to more powerful scenes. Responding to the flight comment, for example, with, "Be careful, I heard the flights to Moscow were grounded because of penguins on the runway." Now you have detail that you can build a scene from.

The Lesson: Have a point of view. No one appreciates a "yes man" in business who feels that it's his (or her) sole job to either agree or offer mind-numbingly obvious questions in response to statements. The "tell me what keeps you up at night" guy hardly ever adds value to conversation. Instead, the real expert is someone who offers a point of view and shares expertise generously. Guess who ends up getting the contract more often?

"There are no mistakes … only opportunities."

In improv, as in business, we often make missteps. Sometimes those missteps are what turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. A factory mistake led to the invention of the Post-It note. There are dozens of other examples of smart innovators who found ways to pivot their direction, react to things that seemed like mistakes and succeed regardless. Doing so requires a mindset of endless optimism. There are no dead ends, only new challenges. This is the improv mindset, and it works well for business, too.

The Lesson: Always have faith. Sometimes the best business ideas require belief in order to succeed. As this principle of improv illustrates, a positive mindset can turn mistakes into success—if you have faith and the willingness to think differently.

Rohit Bhargava is the bestselling author of four marketing books and a consultant on marketing, branding and storytelling. He started his career studying improv comedy and screenwriting—and still draws inspiration from Hollywood storytelling principles when showing businesspeople how to create more emotional stories in marketing.

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Photo: NBC