Improv at work: Second City course translates unscripted skills to corporate world
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TORONTO — Consultant Melissa Madian wanted to help her clients navigate the fast-paced world of sales. But rather than focusing on corporate culture, she turned to a comedy juggernaut for a new skill to add to her tool kit: improvisation.
"Sellers have to be improvising all the time with our customers because there's not one set script," says Madian, owner of Toronto-based consulting firm TMM Enablement Services.
"You need to be ready in that moment of truth to be able to listen to what the customer is saying, and then improvise and adjust based on what they've said so that you can come to a solution together. I think a lot of the foundational items that you learn in improv are absolutely applicable in a business environment."
Madian had previously attended training at Second City Works, the business arm of the famed comedy company, and returned to enrol in RewireU, a new educational program designed to help businesses boost on-the-job efficiency through improv.
"It used to be B2B (business to business), we now talk about H2H — human to human," says Kevin Frank, artistic director of the Second City Training Centre.
"That's the storytelling of your own story, listening to the story of your client, telling the story of your company, and those kind of tools are what we do.
"We're storytellers. We know how to craft a great story based on the truth and honesty of what we are; so we help companies and business managers be authentic about their story so that they can relate one-on-one with their client and their teams."
Following a post-lunch warmup, Madian joined her RewireU classmates in a series of exercises testing their abilities to think on their feet and forge bonds of trust. Fellow participants included a holistic doctor, consultants, and individuals from a variety of sectors, including retail, finance and tourism.
In one exercise dubbed "A Bunch of..." they branched out into smaller groups to take turns reciting a common story punctuated by their own punchlines. Regardless of whether their improvised endings elicited a hearty belly laugh or groan, the response from their peers was always the same: unconditional support, kudos and warm applause. The practice is designed to promote inclusivity and give participants the confidence to take a risk knowing that their delivery will have a soft landing.
Frank says they have attendees self-evaluate their experiences within the exercises and tie them back to business culture to explore the parallels they see within their own work environments.
"There's a lot of evaluation, there's a lot of debrief that allows our participants to say, 'All right: it's one thing to do this exercise in a workshop — how is it going to affect my workplace and the way I do business?'"
The Second City has also teamed with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, which is researching the impact of improv tools on business practices.
"Those studies will allow us to quantify the effects of our training on business leaders and managers in the industry," says Frank.
He recognizes each individual arrives at RewireU with their own skill sets and comfort level and will evolve at different rates — particularly those who may initially seem more reserved.
"I think (the term) introverts is sort of a blanket description. What are the reasons that you aren't stepping out?" asks Frank.
"Is it because you are a perfectionist? Is it because you're cautious? Is it because you don't want to offend people? Let's go down to the core of that and work on those skills."
— Folllow @lauren_larose on Twitter.