The Booming Business of Professional ‘improv-ment’
Tiffane Wang is an audit director at the country’s largest bank, and manages a team of three people.
After leaving the office one recent Thursday, the RBC employee became someone else. Or more precisely, something else: a cog in a pretend and totally pointless human machine along with five total strangers.
In a carpeted white room furnished only with stacks of plastic chairs, she flapped her arms and made steam-engine noises in sync with the other parts of the people-powered nothing machine.
Wang, who graduated from York University with an MBA, is taking “Intro to Improv for Business” at The Second City Training Centre to learn skills that she was never taught in school. Introducing herself to the class, she said she hoped the course would teach her the confidence to move up in the bank. Maybe the lessons would also help her loosen up whenever she’s put on the spot.
“If you put me in front of everybody and suddenly somebody calls my name, and I need to come up with something quick and solid and comprehensive, I can’t do it,” she said. “I have this barrier.”
Some of the other students nodded, as if to say they had the same problem.
Once largely the domain of comedic actors, improv is increasingly becoming an accepted way for businesspeople — from students to corner-office executives — to hone interpersonal skills.
Business schools in Canada and the U.S. are taking note. Of eight Canadian business schools canvassed by the Star, half said they offered improv lessons as a required or optional course (Waterloo, McGill, UBC and Western).
Improv is also taught in some top-tier U.S. business schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Daena Giardella, an actor and organizational team consultant, has given an “improvisational leadership” course at MIT mainly for MBA students and graduate-level university fellows since about 2007. The students role-play scenarios with a business twist.
One student might start with: “I know the boss isn’t going to like this, but I’m going to have tell him you lied about the numbers in the budget.” And scene partners would riff off that opening statement.
It’s not Saturday Night Live material, but Giardella says these improv students learn to think quickly and creatively.
“It teaches them how to think on their feet, how to use their imagination, to trust their creativity and to feel comfortable with vocalizing their ideas,” she said.
Students are graded on their engagement and the papers they write about their experiences.
One core concept of an improv course is the “Yes, and . . . ” rule of improv, the principle that an actor must accept their partner’s idea for a scene and build on it. “When people say ‘Yes, but . . . ’ they stop the engine of brainstorming immediately,” Giardella said.
Do improv abilities actually help at the office? There don’t seem to be many studies on the subject, but one 2014 paper in The Journal of Marketing Education by professors from DePaul University, in Chicago, suggests that they do.
Professors Richard Rocco and Joel Whalen studied two undergraduates groups of about 30 students, one trained in improv with an emphasis on the “Yes, and . . . ” technique, and one not. They all sold sports tickets by phone over four weeks to fans and university alumni. The improv-taught group came out on top, selling 30.1 tickets on average to the other group’s 21.1.
Students aren’t the only ones in the business world turning to improv for self-improvement. The Second City, the comedy troupe known for catapulting Tina Fey and Mike Myers to stardom, has made big bucks by offering workshops to teach office collaboration. According to the Wall Street Journal, The Second City has more than doubled its annual revenue in the past decade by expanding its school, from $28 million to $60 million (U.S.) last year. The company now makes as much money from its training centre and corporate division (Second City Works) as it does from theatrical business, the WSJ said.
The Second City’s improv class at its Toronto training centre, above Gretzky’s restaurant at the corner of Blue Jays Way and Mercer St., runs $305 for a seven-week course (21 hours total). One instructor, The Second City Training Centre in Toronto artistic director Kevin Frank, studied economics and sold computers for a living before he heard the siren song of improv and joined the troupe more than two decades ago.
The lessons are meant to encourage students to take risks and accept failures. “It’s for any person in business who would like to be an effective communicator, who wants to collaborate with others and come up with creative solutions,” he said.
After two classes, Wang, the RBC audit director and component of the human machine on Day One of the course, says she’s learned to be more attentive in meetings. Maybe the human-powered contraption wasn’t pointless after all.