Awesome improv techniques to boost your creative thinking

Can improvisation techniques pump your performance in marketing and creative thinking? You bet…

I’ve seen the Second City improvisation troop twice in my life. The first time I was on assignment at an agency in Chicago (they brought in Second City to entertain their employees), and once more recently on a cruise during a stormy night (a much-needed distraction). On both occasions, I laughed myself almost sick. I was witnessing and totally enjoying a form of creativity that was completely different from the one I did every day as an advertising hack.

Or was it?

I’ve been reading about improv here and there for the past year. I actually thought about taking some classes in it, but it falls on my lengthy bucket list somewhere between joining a drum circle and building a bin for my garbage cans. It ain’t happening any time soon.

Still, the creativity of it intrigues me. Not just as a “creative type,” but also as a marketer, a dad, a friend and denizen of this planet. Improv seems to grant people the ability to think quickly on their feet, react in the moment, and handle changing dynamics with grace—all while keeping things interesting.

What better training for this volatile little world, I thought. Or a career in marketing.

The best description I’ve seen for this art form came in Tina Fey’s (love her) recent book, Bossy Pants. (Try the audio version of it—Tina reads it herself, and brings all that honest charm and razor-sharp timing to the read. It’s guaranteed to make your commute less torturous.) Like many well-known TV writers and stars, Tina cut her comedic teeth on the improv stage, and she shares some awesome advice about it.

The next time you and your colleagues are charged with coming up with ideas for a product launch, marketing strategy, digital campaign or whatever, give some of the following approaches a try. The results may pleasantly surprise you. (I’m actively trying to use these in our brainstorming sessions at our agency.)

Agree and add. When someone comes up with an idea or approach, don’t take the usual path of finding what’s wrong with it. Try agreeing and running with it for a while. Tina tells us that, on stage, someone could point a finger and say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” Another unimaginative actor could then respond, “That’s not a gun, that’s your finger,” and totally kill the scene. Instead, try, “The gun I gave you for Christmas?!? How dare you!?”

In other words, be open and contribute, instead of knocking down or finding fault. It can give rise to some fascinating things.

Don’t ask questions all the time. Questions are good, but try making a few statements about your situation, too. For example, “We have almost 150,000 customers waiting for this,” or “This product update has been two years in the making.” It adds substance and clarity to what you’re talking about, and that can spark some creative thinking.

There are no mistakes, just opportunities. Many of us are conditioned—by school, parents and others—that there’s only one correct answer to a problem. In most of life, though, there are many answers. It’s OK to make a mistake, faux pas or goofy statement while discussing or brainstorming. Who knows? You may uncover a direction you haven’t thought of before. Tina says that when a mistake happens on stage, instead of standing around and looking awkward, the best actors see it as an opportunity to enrich the scene, even if just for a few seconds.

Yes, for many of us, improv may work against our more linear natures. But stepping outside of that nicely furnished, plush comfort zone is often exactly where growth happens… and that’s the good stuff.

Brava, Tina!

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group.

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