May 1, 2023

3 improv tips for hugely inspired teams

Ashley Walters

Chief Development Officer, Partner

A few years back, I became obsessed with the correlation between improv and advertising. There are so many parallels between what we do – and performing under pressure to get an emotional response from the audience. 

See what I mean? That’s exactly what we do as marketing executives. I specifically remember being in a massive pitch with about 20 people and looking over at the CMO who had fallen asleep … IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MEETING. At the time, I didn’t have the tools or confidence to change the momentum of the pitch. What did I have to lose? Why did I freeze? Turns out, the answer lies within the fundamentals of improv.

The biggest business schools in the country incorporate improv techniques into their teachings. So why isn’t it part of our training or onboarding? Think about it, the speed at which you make decisions is similar. Comedians have to make decisions on stage immediately. As creative leaders, we do too. We often need a POV in real-time. Comedians need to actively listen so they can keep the skit rolling and the audience engaged. 

A few years back I got the opportunity to train with The Second City for a year. Yes, the same Second City where Tina Fey and Steve Carell got their start. And it forever changed my life.

Let’s be clear, I am not funny – but because this is a funny business – I picked up a few tricks.  Here‘s how you can apply them to your team and culture. 

Tip #1: “Yes, And” are two of the most powerful words you can teach your staff to say.

For comedians, it’s a strategy used to keep each other talkative on stage. For advertising execs, it can help generate winning business ideas.

Have you ever seen an improv comedy show? It’s so brilliant how they build off each other's ideas. It’s not by accident. It’s purposeful. It’s a proven philosophy and mindset that takes practice. 

It’s called “Yes, And.” When a comedian starts a skit, you don’t build on it by crushing it or shutting it down. The skit would stop. They build on it by saying “Yes, And” – adding to the story. 

It’s the same in business. If you actively listen to your teams and literally say the words, “Yes, And” to grow the idea, people become more willing to share ideas. And, oftentimes, they become bigger and better. 

I could share a dozen examples of how this has worked at Curiosity. But here’s one that’s fresh: We met some friends in Ukraine while we were at Cannes. When we came home, we talked about how we might support them. Donate money? Yes. And elevate their stories. Yes. And get other people to donate too? Yes. And what if we created a fake advertising agency based in the bathtub to tell their stories about living and working during the war? YES!

The genius of “Yes, And” is that this strategy opens up unlimited possibilities by giving every idea a chance. And it adds remarkable benefits to your culture. Try it. 

Now there always comes a time when you have to shut down the idea generation. Or you’d be in ideation forever. That’s when courage takes over. We’ll save courage-building for another day.

Tip #2: Don’t build a hierarchical team; build an ensemble.

Hierarchy has its place. When it comes time to make decisions, for example. But true creativity comes when you flatten the business and involve your staff. We often think too small when it comes to teams. Let me explain …

In my role, I focus on new clients. At Curiosity, we made a conscious decision to kill the idea of “pitch” teams. Most agencies have them. The pitch team is typically reserved for the highest-ranking executives who go off into a silo and work on a pitch – knowing full well they’ll never work on the business. It’s sad really. Sad for the clients, because they don’t get to meet the real team. And sad for the real team, “What, did you not trust me to meet the client?”

Instead of having pitch teams, we created a pitch playbook centered around everything we know to be true to win new business. It’s playful and thoughtful. We call it, “How to Win a Pitch in 10 Days.” Because let's be real, we usually only have about 10 days to win. While the playbook itself is unique, what’s even more special is that we trained our entire staff on it. So now every employee can be a part of our ensemble because they know our process and our philosophy. Because of this, our team went from an elite 8 to an 80-person ensemble. 

Instead of trying to solve problems with your star performers, embrace the diversity an ensemble can offer the creative process. And always remember, feedback is a gift. Give it and receive it as such. This is critical to the success of an ensemble.

Tip #3: Bring a brick, not a cathedral.

When done well, this will build a safe environment for people to share ideas and build on those of others. As a leader, it’s easy to feel like you’re expected to have the idea or solution at the ready. Instead, empower everyone to participate and shorten the expectations a bit. Encourage your teams to bring a brick, (i.e., an idea, or solution, a way of thinking). It doesn’t have to be THE solution but a contribution. Then together, with your diverse ensemble, you can build the cathedral.

I’ve seen this in action. More people will participate and contribute. And isn’t that what you want? Plus, it helps remove “I” troubles. Not e.y.e, but I as in me. You troubles. People can get really tied to an idea and become blind to new ways of thinking. Your staff will quickly realize that what’s ultimately important is not finding your idea, but the idea. The best idea!

Now if you’re not convinced advertising is like improv, check out the Question Everything podcast where I talk in-depth with Kelly Leonard. Kelly is a long-time creative executive at The Second City where he hired and/or developed shows with Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Steve Carell, Keegan-Michael Key, Amy Poehler, and others. You can also check out the best-selling book, Yes, And. Hope to catch you on your favorite podcasting app.

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