Just go with the flow. Rather than taking business cues from Warren Buffett and Mark Cuban, look to Will Ferrell and Stephen Colbert instead. Both fu...
Rather than taking business cues from Warren Buffett and Mark Cuban, look to Will Ferrell and Stephen Colbert instead. Both funnymen have extensive training in improvisation, which is fast becoming a stealth strategy in today’s business world.
Picture this: You’re sitting in a job interview with a fresh haircut, polished shoes, and a painstakingly edited resume to present you at your best. You’ve studied the ins and outs of the company and even rehearsed a few personal anecdotes that reflect your ability to work well with others, overcome difficulty, and think creatively. You’re killing the interview . . . until the boss hits you with this bomb: “What movie tells the story of your life, and why?” Wharton Business School didn’t prepare you for this.
The reason for the left-field question? Managers want to observe your communication skills, test your ability to think on your feet, and determine if you’re truly able to find creative solutions to complicated problems. These kinds of skills are in high demand today, and the experts who can teach you them are probably yukking it up in comedy clubs right now.
We enlisted the services of Mark Chalfant, the artistic director of Washington Improv Theater in Washington, D.C., to find creative improv-based solutions for every workplace problem. Use them to ace an interview, nail a sales pitch, and maybe score a guest spot on Saturday Night Live. (Want more must-have career advice? Sign up for the FREE Best Life newsletter today.)
The situation: During an interview, you’re bombarded with an unrelated question to test your creativity, like “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”
The strategy: Answer quickly and create a dialogue. “Go with your gut and immediately answer with whatever comes to mind,” Chalfant says. “What they’re really asking you to do is share a bit about who you really are.”
Luckily, there’s no right or wrong answer to the question. The successful answer is one that’s quick, confident, and addresses the humor in the situation. “What improv is really about is zeroing in on both sides of a human dynamic, and in interview scenarios, I think that’s often overlooked because people are freaked out or nervous,” Chalfant says. “Once you’ve finished your authentic, honest answer about what kind of animal you are, ask the manager what kind of animal they are, and react to it. How would those animals get together?” Now you’ve created a dialogue and stronger dynamic.
The situation: Halfway through a presentation, you realize that your coworkers are barely paying attention, and your boss looks unimpressed. The few questions you’ve been asked are only tangentially related to your point, and you’re in danger of fumbling the pitch entirely.
The strategy: Wake up your audience and flip your approach. “The ability to change tactics and shift into direct engagement is really important,” says Chalfant.
Engage the room by revisiting the questions that your presentation was meant to address, and connect it with what your audience wants and needs. “In scene work, we ask why do we care, and usually we don’t care if nobody has emotional stakes yet,” Chalfant says. He points to an example where he stopped an improv scene to tell the audience that they were uncomfortable because he was about to simulate an abortion on stage, and that he understood why it weirded some folks out. “You can call out in a meta way what’s happening, and just acknowledging that moment can pull everyone together,” Chalfant says.
You should probably steer clear of abortion jokes in your pitch, but sharp quips about your dry subject matter can bring your crowd back on board.
The situation: Your boss asks you to organize monthly happy hours with the office to improve company morale, but he only gives you an empty conference room and few resources to make it a good time. Mingling is limited, and talk rarely veers from work-related issues. If you don’t liven the mood, it could reflect poorly on your leadership skills.
The strategy: Acknowledge the situation, and don’t be afraid to ask your coworkers for support. “It’s about having a conversation,” Chalfant says. “Instead of accepting that you’re the dork who has to be the cruise director for this thing, tell everybody, Hey the boss asked me to be the cruise director for this thing and I’d like for this to be as not lame as possible.”
Ask your coworkers for ideas of games to play or activities to do to take everyone’s attention off of the clock and the stack of work waiting for them at their desks. “If everyone can feel like they’re in the same boat, it becomes a little easier,” Chalfant says.
The situation: Your boss or client is vague with directions, but expects tasks to be done in a specific way, and is very critical of your performance. You’re stumped on how to ask the right questions and pull out the information you need to do your job well.
The strategy: Explain that you ultimately want to help him. Illustrate that you’re “trying to make him so freaking happy he won’t be able to believe it,” says Chalfant. “If you can get him to understand that, then usually he’ll want to go there with you.”
Trust is a big part of improv, and sometimes it takes a lot of reassurance to establish that trust. “It’s the same thing if there’s somebody in a scene who is persistently blocking, saying ’no’ or canceling opportunities,” Chalfant says. “Once they realize that you’re really trying to go somewhere with them, and you’ll go anywhere, then usually they’ll have that light-bulb-moment and say ‘yes’ to something and let the scene progress.”
The situation: Your boss presents the office with a business strategy that’s outdated, uninformed, or just plain awful. Meanwhile, you have a more efficient and fruitful plan in your back pocket, but office politics might make it difficult for your idea to see the light of day. Without offending the big guy, you need to convince him to go with your idea instead of his own.
The strategy: Test out both ideas. Good improv involves trying multiple things at the same time—some fail and some succeed, but you keep trying. “This is very much an either-or scenario,” says Chalfant. “A lot of times people overlook the ability to try more than one thing at once.”
“Let’s say we’re trying four different strategies for something. You must be comfortable that one, two or even three might fail, and that doesn’t mean the people who championed those ideas are losers or need to be canned,” he says. Risk taking is essential to improv, and it’s also a cornerstone of progressive businesses, since failure presents an opportunity to learn. “The ability to take risks collaboratively and not freak out when they don’t always pay off is a key to success.”
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