Improv Group Markets Corporate Training

Andy Friedman
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways
  • ​Improv group leader spent years on stage in Chicago's dynamic comedy scene

  • She realized the collaboration in Improv comedy has a direct application to all things Corporate

  • Going from Improv group to corporate trainer created a whole new marketing challenge

  • Major companies have signed up for this unique type of training

​Erin Diehl decided to do a little something different with her Improv group. She s​aw how collaborative her team was and figured they could help corporate teams come together in a similar fashion.

That's how improve it! Chicago was born.

We sat down with Diehl for a fascinating look into the world of Improv comedy and how what she found there can make all workplaces just a little bit better. 

And she says launching this business posed a unique marketing challenge for a group of professional comedians.

 

Q: How did you get into the world of improv? Give us a little insight into your background and professional aspirations / experiences:

A: I was involved with sketch comedy and theater my entire life and these activities continue to fulfill me today. I moved to Chicago in 2005 to pursue an acting career. Over the span of two years, I was cast in a leading role in an Off-Broadway show, toured the country hosting youth-focused shows and emceed events for major brands.

After two years of exciting success and lots of travel, I was keen to explore the corporate side of large scale production events.  I joined an experiential marketing firm and was involved in planning and executing national events for major brands.  While this role was professionally challenging, I started to feel creatively unfulfilled.  I needed a new opportunity that would allow me to connect with people on a closer, more intimate level.  I began working at a recruiting firm and started taking classes at The Second City. The skills I learned through improv challenged and enlightened my personal and professional life-- I was more open, honest, lived more in-the-moment, and was also more verbose...if that's even possible!

Improv became my passion. I was surrounded by some of the most supportive, talented and interesting people I had ever met and I was thriving professionally.  I started improve it! because I want to help people enhance their ability to connect and build meaningful relationships.  Of course, this makes business sense because those who can effectively communicate their thoughts and build relationships have an advantage.  I truly believe everyone has the capacity to build lasting relationships and I am a here to help build key skills to assist this process.

  

Q:  When did you start your company and how did it come about?

I continued improv training at the iO Theater and The Annoyance and in 2012, and I mentioned my business idea to a client at United Airlines over dinner. She loved the concept, asked me to run a pilot (pun intended!) workshop for her team, and that interactive skill-based workshop is now the cornerstone offering for improve it!

      Check out this video of improve it! being featured in Chicago's Big Idea Awards showcase

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In 2013, Harrington College of Design was looking to engage prospective students in an experience that would be engaging, memorable and promote their brand. We partnered to create a custom workshop that would accomplish these goals.  The workshop was very positively received and I knew improve it! had potential to be a huge success! My husband got to work building our website and organizing back office operations, and I recruited three great improv teams and a charity partner.

Giving back and improving the lives of others is something that I feel is truly important when building a company and a brand. Chicago has such an incredible community that fosters support and connectedness, and I wanted that feeling to be a huge part of improve it!

Funny Bones Improv is the perfect non-profit charity partner because they use improv as a means to bring laughter and positivity to sick children, their families, and their caregivers in hospitals across Chicago and New Orleans through volunteer comedy improvisation performances. We donate five percent of all of our profits to this organization.

My love of creativity, high-energy and smart comedy paired with helping others create intimate and meaningful relationships led me to create improve it!.

Q: Who are some of your top clients?

A: We are excited to have worked with some wonderful clients in 2015. PepsiCo, Illinois CPA Society, Groupon, Mesirow Financial, American Marketing Association (wink, wink)!, Grand Valley State University, Central States SER and World Chicago have all bee clients of ours throughout this year. We are excited to have a host of other new clients on deck going into fall.​

      Check out this video interview with improve it!

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We are excited for upcoming work with Grand Valley State University and the Illinois CPA Society’s Young Professionals Conference. We are very excited to have a host of other new clients on deck for 2015.

Q: What is the theory behind using improv in a corporate training context?

A: Improv has many concepts and techniques that relate to business environments. The under lying foundation of improv is teamwork and support. It is about working together to build rapport, have engaging conversations and tell a story that is compelling for an audience.

Organizations thrive by tapping into the creative talents of their employees. Innovation and creativity enhance productivity, accelerate capability and help sustain the competitive advantage. Companies must innovate to survive, and improv is by nature – innovative! Improv is not only fun, it encourages individual choice, trust, and risk taking.

We have built six workshop modules that focus on competencies relevant to business: team building/collaboration, effective communication, networking, presentation skills, taking initiative and thinking quickly on your feet.

Q: How are improv and business life interrelated?

A: Business, like improv, thrives on the exchange of information via dynamic conversations and team work. Both require the generation of original ideas. One of the tenants of improv is “Yes, And” which means to take what has been given to you by a scene partner and grow that idea even further. In a business setting, this means don’t make your teammates do all of the communicating—everyone needs to contribute, help move projects forward with new/fresh ideas. It means “Yes, I understand your idea, AND here’s what I think can take it to the next level or course correct to a new or different direction.”

Q: What are the three most important leadership traits in your opinion? How do you go about developing them?

A: I think the three most important leadership traits are trust, compassion and optimism. Our workshops develop skills to enhance individual capability around these traits

In our workshops, we illustrate how leaders must Show Up + Give Support = (to have) Team Collaboration. Leaders show up for their team and commit 100% to them—team members in turn trust and place value in the relationship. Leaders support their team through active listening, individual strategies, and coaching conversations. Leaders celebrate successes and encourage new ideas. Our improv activities and debriefs highlight each of these skills and drive dialogue around best practices and lessons learned in the business environment.

      Here's Erin talking about commitment

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Q: Which key areas does your improv training for corporate groups address?

A: We have six workshop modules on topics that directly apply to business environments: team building/collaboration, effective communication, networking, presentation skills, taking initiative and thinking quickly on your feet. Our workshops are highly interactive and develop skills through activities and debriefs to enhance individual capability in these focus areas.

Q: Can you give an example of an improv exercise that’s used in corporate training? What are its benefits and why does it work?

A: Sure! One of our most impactful exercises is “A Place of Yes.” One person stands in front of their peers/audience and asks for a suggestion of a product that has never been invented. The product suggested by the audience is then pitched back to the audience, highlighting, five facts about that product on the spot about the new and exciting product. After every “fact” the audience yells “YES!” Multiple people take turns “pitching” new products to the audience.

After several people have had a turn, we go around the room sharing how it felt to be in the moment and supported. The “pitchers” routinely say they feel energized, smart and relieved to be sharing their idea with a supportive group. The audience frequently says the facts became more smart and on-point as the “pitcher” continued talking.  The biggest “aha” moment is when all participants are asked the question: “How many times in your professional career have you been as supported as you just were in this exercise?” Typically not one single person will raise their hand. This exercise is challenging for all participants—it requires giving support even when ideas aren’t the best, but it allows participants to practice supporting others and to see how that support affects others.  The debrief also includes a conversation around how you can better support your team/direct reports/peers. The end result will be a positive, natural exchange of ideas and best practices.

Q: Why is improv training particularly important for current leaders? And aspiring leaders?

A: Effective, sustainable leaders are dynamic individuals who continuously develop themselves. Leaders must use emotional intelligence to influence others.  Improv helps leaders to better express themselves, relate to others and cope with operating on point. Improv training provides a safe place for leaders to energize, learn and practice new techniques, and learn how to better collaborate with others.  Enhanced capability in these areas directly impacts teams and productivity.

Aspiring leaders and individual contributors can use improv skills in the same way as leaders though application would look a bit different and would focus on building better relationships with their peers, using creativity to create new ideas and to better communicate those ideas to their manager or team.

Q: How do improv exercises improve soft skills, specifically?

​A: Soft skills are all about understanding others and communicating with an audience-centered approach.  Improv exercises are basically role-play opportunities where attendees practice specific techniques for communicating creatively and spontaneously. These techniques lighten the communication process and highlight best practices for interpersonal communication—1) communicate so that your audience will best hear your message rather than in the way you are most familiar, 2) headline your main point and then fill in the details so others can follow, 3) leave room for others to participate and provide support, understand when and how to switch technique for maximum impact. Improv exercises have varying levels of complexity that challenge different communication styles.

Q: What’s the most common shortcoming when it comes to interpersonal skills? How do you address them?

A: The most common shortcoming I have witnessed in our workshops is actually a fear of public speaking and a lack of awareness of how to professionally support someone else’s ideas.

People hear improv and are automatically afraid of coming up with something on the spot, or speaking in front of a group. We address this fear right away by setting a ground rule that this is a safe and supportive environment. We emphasize that in the next two hours, there are no mistakes, only great ideas and all attendees will be supported in whatever they say. We then present “The Chicken Hat.” This is literally a hat that looks like a chicken and the improv team leads an exercise on providing support and creating a comfortable environment.

Lack of awareness of how to professionally support other’s ideas is a common challenge.  Attendees know how to tell someone “good job” or “that was a good idea---congrats”, but they don’t initially realize that adding to someone’s idea is actually a compliment and a way to further support them in exploring the idea to its fully potential.  Several of our exercises explore how sharing your ideas, asking questions and driving conversation is actually a way to support others.

Q: How does your training help business types overcome stage fright when speaking in a professional setting?

A: It’s a well-known that public speaking is listed as one of the biggest human fears!

We have an entire workshop dedicated to building comfort around giving presentations.  The workshop focuses on preparation, visualization, practicing presentation delivery and receiving feedback, all with confidence. We also focus on the power of silence and teach tactics that allow presenters to pause, and consider their response before responding to questions.

Our workshops involve interactive group activities that put people on the spot but in a safe and healthy way.  These experiences challenge and build confidence.  Some of the most rewarding feedback we have received is from people who are terrified of speaking in groups and were wary of how they would do during the workshop—some of these people had “break-out” experiences that resulted in a more positive and encouraging speaking experience.  It’s all about practice and positive experiences.

Q: How do you handle chronic introverts?

A: The great thing about our workshops is that while I am facilitating, the improvisers are 100% fully engaged with each of the attendees so it is very easy for us to identify people who are more introverted.  We look for attendees who struggle with our introductory activities and we lend more support to them during exercises in the beginning and middle of the workshop.  We exploit signs of strengths and give them a bit more freedom and creative room as the workshop progresses. Attendees can participate at different levels and we make sure to facilitate towards each individual’s comfort zone, while pushing their boundary in a healthy way.

By the end of the workshop, introverted attendees are typically laughing, engaging and interacting with the group on a higher level. They’ve taken risks, they’ve succeeded, and they’ve tried some new things that didn’t work out as they might have expected.  Ultimately, they feel positively supported in their experience.

Q: Why is role-playing so important in corporate training?

​A: Role-playing is an excellent tool for preparing for new or difficult situations.

Role-playing helps to build confidence, learn from mistakes in a risk-free environment, and better understand best practices. Improv is all about role-playing and trying out new techniques in a safe environment.

Q: Can improv and role-playing build confidence and character? If so, how?

A: Improv, role-playing, confidence and character are deeply related.  Confidence increases with preparation and from receiving consistent positive results. The role-playing nature of improv gives plenty of opportunity to practice, learn, and achieve results.  Developing character comes into play through new experiences, challenges and successes—all of which are included in our improv workshops! 

You can learn more at Improve It's website

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Author Bio:

 
Andy Friedman
Andy Friedman is the AMA's head of content. He can be reached at afriedman@ama.org.
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