When it comes to communication, we like to think if only we follow the right script and say the right words then things will always work out the way we want.
Asking a girl out on a date? I need that perfect opening line. Trying to get a new job? I need to give the perfect answers in my interview. Want to persuade someone? I need to have the perfect argument in my head.
But life rarely follows a script. Instead, it’s a whole lot of improvisation.
We can never know exactly how a situation will unfold. So we need to be able to respond to information from our environment in real-time, and adapt to each situation as we go along.
There are no perfect answers. There are no perfect words. There are no perfect scripts that will give you the same exact results every time.
According to Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking, improvisation is a skill anyone can apply more to their personal and professional relationships.
The book explores the teachings and philosophy behind The Second City, one of the first major comedy-improv groups in the United States and Canada.
First started in 1959, it has since given birth to many comedic legends over the years including Bill Murray, John Belushi, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Steve Carrel, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler.
Like improvisation, having communication skills means knowing how to respond to your conversations on-the-fly. You need to pay attention to how the person is reacting to you and adapt to changes “in the moment.”
The rest of this article will cover 5 different improvisation exercises that are explored in the book. They are designed to build on an array of different communication skills.
The nature of improvisation is always a “give and take.” So unfortunately most of these improvisation exercises require more than one person to practice them.
However, if you can find a couple of family, friends, or coworkers who are interested in improving their communication skills, these can be very valuable exercises to experiment with.
Exercise #1: One Word At a Time Story
This improvisation exercise requires at least 2-3 people, but the more the better. The only rule of this exercise is that you have to tell a story with each person only contributing one word at a time.
The great thing about this improvisation exercise is that each individual has to play a small role in the creative process, but no one can hog the entire story.
As tempting as it may be to add a whole phrase, sometimes when it’s your turn you end up being a “the” or “and.” You don’t get to be creative all the time, sometimes your role is just supporting the direction of the story.
The same is true for everyday communication. We can’t always control the direction of the conversation, often we need to step back and play a more supportive role.
This exercise also plays off of the “Yes, And” theme that is embedded throughout all improvisation. The basic idea behind this rule is that you have to accept every idea and build off of it.
If during an improv sketch someone says, “I’m a duck.” The actors on stage have to go with it. Responding to the person by saying, “No, you’re a cat!” kills the bit, because there is a conflict of the facts (and that confuses the dialogue).
“No, But” is a way to kill an idea. “Yes, And” requires us to accept an idea and build off of it. The latter is a key element to all good improvisation and communication.
Exercise #2: Mirror Body
In this improvisation exercise, you only need 2 people – one person’s role is the “leader” and the other person’s role is the “follower.”
The leader starts off by creating their own unique posture, facial expression, or body movement. And then the follower mirrors whatever the leader does. Repeat the process 3-5 times, then switch roles.
The purpose of this exercise is to help individuals tap into their nonverbal skills. Communication is about more than just the words we say, but also what is communicated through our bodies and faces.
Good improvisers and good communicators are masters at reading this nonverbal communication and responding to it instantly.
In fact, mirroring is a form of empathy. By mirroring someone’s facial expressions or body posture, we actually gain a deeper understanding of what they are thinking and feeling.
If you can’t find a partner, you can also do this exercise by flipping on a random TV show, putting it on mute, and then mirroring whatever the actors are doing in the scene.
By practicing this exercise, you learn to pay more attention to this type of nonverbal communication, which often takes place outside of our awareness.
Exercise #3: Emotion Roulette
This improvisation exercise needs at least 2 people (or multiple pairs), and a single person to act as a “moderator.”
First each pair starts a conversation with their partner – it can be about anything. Then every 1-2 minutes, the moderator shouts out a random emotion and the participants must continue their conversation in the tone of that emotion.
This works best if you already have a list of emotions to choose from randomly.
You can start by writing down 10 or so emotions on index cards (happy, surprised, depressed, anxious), then shuffle the cards and choose a new one every minute or so. Set a timer to make things easier.
As you get more comfortable with the exercise, you can start adding more emotions to keep things interesting.
This is a great exercise to practice emotional expression and flexibility. It can also be incredibly fun – because simply adding a new emotion to a scene can lead a conversation down a whole new path and storyline.
In the real world we never know what emotions may spring up in a conversation. And good communicators are able to empathize and express the full range of human emotions (in the right context).
Yes, And is an instant classic on the principles behind improvisation and how to apply them to almost every area of your life. It shares many fun and entertaining exercises you can practice with your friends and family.
Exercise #4: Last Word Response
This next improvisation exercise can be done with two or more participants. The only rule to the exercise is to respond to someone using the last word they used.
A: I have to go to the gym more often.
B: Often I think about the same thing.
A: Thing is I’m really lazy.
B: Lazy is just an excuse.
A: Excuse me? That’s a bit rude.
This exercise is probably the most difficult one in this article. Most of the time the conversations will take a weird and funny turn. But that’s fine.
The point of this exercise is just to improve your listening ability. You have to work with the last word said, so you have to listen to what is said all the way to the end before you can think of a response.
It’s common in our daily conversations to be thinking of a response in our heads before we fully listen to what someone says. This exercise helps prevent that process by forcing you to wait until the person is finished.
Exercise #5: Gibberish Games
This improvisation exercise requires 4 people. Two people will speak to each other using a made up “gibberish” language, and the other two people will translate what they are saying.
Take turns between the gibberish speakers saying something crazy and weird (alien words, mouth sounds, grunts, etc.), then letting the translators interpret it as they see fit.
For the gibberish speakers, this exercise is a great opportunity to work on your body language and tone-of-voice to communicate what you’re saying. And for the translators, this is a great opportunity to read those nonverbal signals and give meaning to them.
Both groups play a role in the creative process in a different way. Each feed off of their verbal and nonverbal cues to make a scene. Once you’ve practiced for a little while, switch up the roles between the gibberish speakers and translators.
This is my personal favorite exercise of the ones mentioned in this article. It’s not uncommon to find these type of games ending in laughter.
All of these exercises are meant to be playful and fun. If you approach these too seriously, you’re going to miss the point and not learn anything new about yourself.
You shouldn’t be judging yourself during these exercises by thinking, “This is stupid” or “This makes no sense.” Try to remember that you’re just experimenting – there are going to be failures and successes.
If you want to learn more about improvisation and how to apply it to your everyday life, Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking is a very worthwhile read.
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