Improv skills lead to success

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Dialogue and Cooperative Play

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Success at improv and business requires the clear communication of ideas and a willingness to incorporate others’ contributions into your work. This interchange doesn’t just happen verbally…among architects, this type of exchange happens on paper. In an opinion piece published in the September 2, 2012 New York Times, architect and Princeton professor (emeritus) Michael Graves wrote about an unspoken dialogue he had with a colleague during a boring faculty meeting:

While we didn’t speak, we were engaged in a dialogue over this plan and we understood each other perfectly. I suppose that you could have a debate like that with words, but it would have been entirely different. Our game was not about winners or losers, but about a shared language. We had a genuine love for making this drawing. There was an insistence, by the act of drawing, that the composition would stay open, that the speculation would stay “wet” in the sense of a painting. Our plan was without scale and we could as easily have been drawing a domestic building as a portion of a city. It was the act of drawing that allowed us to speculate.

Players from the ComedySportz Portland improv group love the game of Paper Telephone. The idea is that you write a starting line at the top of a piece of paper, then pass it to a friend. Your friend reads the first line, writes a second line, and then folds the paper so only the most recent line is visible. You continue passing the paper around until there’s no more room, then unfold the paper and read the story. A fun variation is to have as many pieces of paper as there are players so you get lots of stories. The results are often hilarious and the similarities among stories can be eerie.

If you haven’t played Paper Telephone, you might have written stories with a friend, trading off after every paragraph. I’ve found this method works well for developing business presentations. Sit down with two or three of your colleagues and take turns telling a story or building an outline one line at a time. Don’t worry about coherence or order yet — all you want to do is get the information down so you can revise it later. This type of cooperative play helps you get beyond the creative person’s nightmare: a blank page.