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1/3/10 - Learning Improv Can Help in any Field

No joke: Learning improv can help in any field

Tips on how to get or keep a job in 2010 using skills from the acting trade


By Amy Hoak, MarketWatch


CHICAGO (MarketWatch) -- Lane Rasberry may not be the next Steve Carell, but the same skills that improv comedians typically learn on their rise to stardom helped this research interviewer get better at what he does at work every day.

A class at Seattle's Jet City Improv made Rasberry more aware of how he communicates and helped improve his interviewing skills. In presentations, he's more responsive to an audience and he isn't as fazed when something doesn't go according to plan.

Using improv to teach workers new skills

Chicago's Second City is known as a training ground for comedic actors, but it also offers improv classes to Corporate America. Lesson No. 1: Learning how to listen, a necessary skill in improvisation -- and business. MarketWatch' s Amy Hoak reports.

"I never thought about acting or getting involved in something like that," Rasberry said. "I wanted more communication skills."

Mastering the ability to listen closely and communicate well with co-workers can be a rarity in the corporate world of countless email messages and PowerPoint presentations. Improv companies are taking note and offering assistance through corporate training workshops.

Meanwhile, some individuals looking to perfect those skills invest in improv classes -- whether it's to do their job better or find a new one -- giving new meaning to the phrase "all the world's a stage."

"How to listen, how to read a room, how to build trust on teams, how to create and innovate, how to resolve conflict -- all that kind of stuff is stuff that our actors know how to do really well," said Tom Yorton, chief executive officer of The Second City Communications, the business-focused arm of the legendary Chicago comedy theater.

Real-world skills

These are skills that business schools don't always teach.

"We're being called in to work with young people who aren't showing up with the emotional intelligence and the listening skills and people skills -- brilliant people with numbers and flow charts," said Richard Richards, vice president of program design for The Ariel Group, a Lexington, Mass.-based firm that takes a slightly different approach -- using acting-based techniques to coach employees.

For individuals, Jet City Improv occasionally offers a course specifically on using improv skills in job interviews. The workshop ends with participants doing mock interviews to put the concepts into practice.

This type of training also is useful for holding down a job. While people need to be competent at what they do, "the other key facet of being someone who keeps their job is being someone that other people want to work with," said Seth Weitberg, curriculum director for Improv Olympic in Chicago. "If you're a good, active listener, someone who supports other people and makes their ideas look better... you will find a lot of people want to be around you quite a bit," he said.

Crash course

No time for an improv or acting class? Whether your 2010 involves finding a job or keeping the one that you have, below are five tips for a better performance:

1. Listen up

Practice better listening skills by concentrating on the person speaking and not what you're going to say next, Weitberg said.

"Most people will self-identify as poor listeners," Weitberg said. "They're afraid they won't have something good to say when it's their turn to speak. Out of fear, they start thinking about what they want to say."

You'll have a better conversation if you stay in the moment and pay attention.

2. Be flexible

The ability to go with the flow is important whether you're supporting members of a team or making a good impression in an interview.

Improvisers know this well: A scene might not take the direction they had hoped, but they can stick with it to make it work. To succeed in that, they follow a "yes, and" rule; instead of saying no or denying something said or done onstage, actors support their cast mates, accept the suggestion and add to it.

That rule "is important for creating professional relationships and getting people's trust and letting them know we are all on the same side here," said Shubbu Amin, a program manager at Microsoft who took a course at Jet City Improv.

3. Know yourself

For job interviews, people will often memorize their resume in preparation. Instead, rehearse by reflecting on experiences you've had that could express your personality and what you bring to a company, Richards said.

Go into an interview knowing stories from your past that illustrate certain qualities or lessons learned. Create a value statement about yourself -- what you're bringing to the table regardless of the company -- and weave the ideas into an interview conversation.

Actors develop a keen sense of self-awareness to present characters on stage; in the business world, develop that awareness to recognize your personal strengths and weaknesses -- and use the knowledge to your advantage.

"Most people think they have to play a role instead of just being themselves in an interview -- and when they're themselves, they get to be a little more credible and authentic, and that really rings true," Yorton said.

Remember that even if you have a job, self-awareness is important -- especially in a tough economy. "Every interaction is a continuing job interview... whether you're going to keep it," said Sean Kavanagh, chief executive officer of The Ariel Group.

4. Pay attention to body language

Have friends or family critique your body language for cues on how interviewers and business associates view you.

"One of the reasons salespeople try to put something in your hands is because it doesn't allow you to cross your arms," Weitberg said. "Staring out the window can be [a] sign of indifference. .. or fear. Staring someone down can be aggressive."

Also pay attention to filler words like "um," or any other verbal cues that could work against you. For example, Lauren Domino, education director at Jet City Improv, worked with a student who seemed to apologize for everything -- a trait that gives off a less-than-confident vibe in a business setting.

5. Find common ground

It's important to make connections, even if it's something as simple as where you went to school or your favorite sports team. Identifying common ground goes a long way to establishing trust and building rapport, whether in creating a scene with another actor or talking with a potential boss during an interview.

"The sooner you can find that common ground, the more likely you can get what you want," Richards said.

Added Weitberg: "Having a genuine interest in the lives of people around you and embracing opportunities to be vulnerable around others goes a long way in people feeling you're someone they want to spend time with."

Even if the only time you spend together is in the break room.


Amy Hoak is a MarketWatch reporter based in Chicago.