Mt. Vernon Register-News

Community News Network

March 31, 2014

How improv comedy skills became a must-have for entrepreneurs

NEW YORK — A few years ago, for complex reasons, I attended the orientation week for Columbia Business School students. The week involved team-building exercises that forced us to solve problems together. It included a module on ethics, in which we were asked to respond to hypothetical dilemmas. There was, of course, a near-lethal amount of alcohol consumption. And, one morning, as we gathered (quite hung over) in the auditorium, we did improv.

Improvisational comedy workshops have become a staple at business schools, and in the corporate world in general. Bob Kulhan, co-founder of Business Improvisations, helped originate the trend. In 2000, drawing on his experience performing on the Chicago sketch comedy scene, Kulhan partnered with a professor at Duke's Fuqua School of Business to launch an improv training program tailored to MBA students. The program expanded to the business schools at UCLA, Columbia, and Indiana, among other universities.

Kulhan later moved beyond academia to lead organized workshops for employees of companies such as American Express, Dupont, Ford, PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble. "Through improv," says Kulhan, "we can work on anything from leadership, to influence, to adaptability, to crisis management. We can help people's communication skills. We can show them how to stay focused, in the present moment, at a very high level."

At first glance, zany improv and the straight-laced corporate world might seem to be unlikely bedfellows. But the cross-pollination between comedy and business has led both to fruitful managerial skills development for executives and to fruitful employment for funny folks. Comedians have not only led training workshops, but have begun to infiltrate marketing departments and advertising agencies. They have even, in at least one case, put their stamp on an entire workplace culture.

"Improv workshops used to be a tougher sell," says Holly Mandel, founder of the performance school Improvolution and its corporate-targeted offshoot Imergence. "People thought of wigs and props. But now a lot of companies are very open to it. They see the benefits."

What can improv teach worker bees? The secret is in the "yes, and" ethos. When they're collaborating onstage, improv performers never reject one another's ideas - they say "yes, and" to accept and build upon each new contribution. "It's a total philosophy of creativity," says Mandel. " 'Yes, and' creates, while 'no' stops the flow."

That's an important lesson in any business setting that demands cooperation and innovation. Improv also requires excellent listening skills, rewards those who shed their inhibitions and leap into the middle of the group dynamic, and offers valuable lessons about the wisdom of shrugging off setbacks.

"When I lead these sessions, typically people start out scared to make mistakes," says Mandel. "They self-edit. Maybe there's a hierarchy in the office where some people never get heard and some people squelch the conversation. Maybe the boss is scared to look stupid, so he acts too cool for the exercise. But over the course of the workshop, you see camaraderie build between co-workers. They start to hear each other. They gain the confidence to speak freely and take risks."

"There's a lot of power around yes versus no," says Chet Harding, co-founder of Boston's Improv Asylum comedy group. "If I say no, I might get a laugh at your expense. But it stops the idea. And it creates a bad culture, both onstage and in an office setting. Next time, you might wait for me to start so that you can rip the rug out from under me, as opposed to a relationship where we're trying to advance shared ideas and make each other look good."

Harding says demand for workshops is growing. Improv Asylum has been running regular programs for employees of Twitter's Boston campus and has also worked with Google, Fidelity, Raytheon and Harvard Business School. Its latest venture is an international expansion, with a new Improv Asylum theater and corporate training group based in Dublin to offer workshops for the many multinationals headquartered there. Harding has already worked with European-based companies including Jägermeister, Carl Zeiss and Nokia.

Harding's background is in advertising; he worked first at the Leo Burnett agency in Chicago (where he took improv classes in his spare time) and later as the advertising director for Polaroid. Which suggests another natural intersection point for comedy and business. Harding says that Improv Asylum has lately been creating a series of online ads for Dunkin' Donuts, collaborating with Boston ad agency Hill Holliday on scripts, casting, and production.

According to Nate Dern of Upright Citizens Brigade, the legendary New York improv group, advertising and PR firms frequently hire UCB for "punch-up" sessions, to inject more humor into a pitch for a client or an idea for a campaign. At least a couple of UCB performers maintain day jobs as creatives at advertising firms. And sometimes UCB will actually deliver the end product, as in a series of Web videos for the fast food chain Arby's.

Humorist Daniel Kibblesmith writes and directs funny Web material for companies including Home Depot and Adobe, as well as providing other contributions to the advertising and brand-consulting wing of The Onion. But he got his start at Groupon, becoming one of the company's first 50 employees when he answered a Craiglist ad asking for comedy writers. Their initial job was to spruce up the language in the discount deals that Groupon emailed to its customers. They next turned to the employee handbook, adding levity to its do's and don'ts. Groupon's then-CEO Andrew Mason was "a young and quirky guy," says Kibblesmith, "and he wanted us to experiment with things. He plugged us into different roles to see where our voice could benefit the company."

Eventually, Kibblesmith and his comedian co-workers were given the keys to the corporate culture. They were asked to bring "surprise and delight" into the workplace. One day, this meant hiring a seventysomething actor in a cardigan to be a "Groupon Grandpa" who strolled around telling pleasant but pointless stories to everyone he encountered. "The goal was to make working in an office less like Groundhog Day," says Kibblesmith, "with the possibility that something interesting might happen at any time."

Unfortunately, a few of these efforts backfired. "The low point," says Kibblesmith, "was early on, when we had a guy wearing a tutu walk silently around the office. People found it annoying, and they didn't know how to engage with it. They felt like they were being pranked."

Current Groupon employees say the stunts have since been toned down. Perhaps there are limits, after all, to the confluence of comedy and corporate world. It turns out that unfunny is still unfunny, whether it's on a stage or it's walking past your cubicle.



 

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Does Twitter need a censor?

    Twitter decided last year to make images more prominent on its site. Now, the social network is finding itself caught between being an open forum and patrolling for inappropriate content.

    August 21, 2014

  • sleepchart.jpg America’s sleep-deprived cities

    Americans might run on sleep, but those living in the country's largest cities don't appear to run on much.

    August 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Africa goes medieval in its fight against Ebola

    As the Ebola epidemic claims new victims at an ever-increasing rate, African governments in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have instituted a "cordon sanitaire," deploying troops to forcibly isolate the inhabitants in an area containing most of the cases.

    August 18, 2014

  • Democrat? Republican? There's an app for that

    If you're a Republican, you might want to think twice before buying Lipton Iced Tea, and forget about Starbucks coffee. If you're a Democrat, put down that Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, and throw away the cylinder of Quaker Oats in your pantry.

    August 18, 2014

  • Five myths about presidential vacations

    In the nuclear age, presidents may have only minutes to make a decision that could affect the entire world. They don't so much leave the White House as they take a miniature version of it with them wherever they go.

    August 15, 2014

  • weightloss.jpg The scales of injustice: Weight loss differs between men, women

    You're not imagining it: There really are differences between the way men and women diet, lose weight and respond to exercise.

    August 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Drug dealers going corporate

    A top federal official on Tuesday said that 105 banks and credit unions are doing business with legal marijuana sellers, suggesting that federal rules giving financial institutions the go-ahead to provide services to dealers are starting to work.

    August 13, 2014

  • wwimemorial.jpg The benefit of World War I omission on the Washington Mall

    By 1982, when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened on the National Mall, something had shifted in the way we remember our wars. A national memorial, prominently placed on the nation's most symbolically significant public space, came to seem like an essential dignity offered to veterans, their families and the memory of those who gave their lives. But there is an exception.

    August 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • In Japan, ramen aficionados worry their favorite dish is coming off the boil

    "The ramen boom has ended," said Ivan Orkin, a New Yorker who first traveled to Japan in the 1980s and now owns two noodle-soup restaurants in Tokyo. "A boom implies that there are new avenues and new growth to pursue, and that's not the case in Japan anymore."

    August 11, 2014

  • Ronnie Ellis: U.S. Senate race trail long and interesting

    By Ronnie Ellis/CNHI News Service

    FRANKFORT — Last week was a long one, endured under the onslaught of an awful summer cold and played out across the commonwealth. It began in Fancy Farm and ended it in Corbin with a trip to Hazard in between.

    August 9, 2014

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks