For 20 years I’ve taught organizational communication by sharing the skills of theatrical improv. It’s the art of performing without a script—inventing characters, relationships, and scenes, all with no planning. It’s also a learnable system of specific skills. Along the way, I’ve discovered the crucial power of improv for business communication is as a “gym” for growing your curiosity muscles. Regular workouts with improv rescue us from unclear messaging, disconnected internal conversations, and inept relationship-building. Here are four ways that learning improvisational curiosity supercharges communication
#1 Curiosity reveals invisible habits. Improv stretches our comfort zones in lots of ways. It’s often said that improv “helps us think fast on our feet.” But it actually slows us down and forces us to notice and assess what’s right in front of us. We get to examine our assumptions about our colleagues and audience, how we choose our words, and how we really feel about our value proposition. We also may suddenly discover patterns in how we’re sitting, standing or gesticulating. I recently worked with a youth-services fundraising association and ran an exercise called “First Impression Intro.”
It forced participants to notice how they always do the simple act of saying hello. One savvy senior manager laughed and said she’d “never even noticed that my colleagues move before!” Improv curiosity unearths long-buried communicational habits—both the good and the bad—as a valuable and necessary first step toward greater impact.
#2 Curiosity makes room for trust. The jazz musician Stan Getz once said, “A good quartet is like a good conversation among friends interacting to each other’s ideas.” The system of improvisation trains us to curiously see our audience as partners, whether they’re in the room, on a call, or are part of a strategic demographic. If we patiently notice the signals the audience is sending our way, we can learn to empathize with the possible motivations behind them. We’ll receive and accept verbal and non-verbal cues—not as challenges but as ideas to build on.
We can stop ignoring emotions coming at us and choose to include our emotional points-of-view in the conversation. We will respect how the audience/partner communicates and match their energy, perhaps even adopt some of their terminologies. And we’ll check our egos and listen to what our gut is telling us. Improv encourages us to see communication through the metaphor of game and teaches us new connective language habits. A classic phrase we learn, “yes and,” allows us to build playfully on ideas we hear, so we reach a place of trust in each other, even when discussing complex, oppositional, or sensitive projects.
We deepen our respect and empathy for our audience as mutual players of the game and builders of the communication pipeline. As improvisers, we build a playful, curious dialogue with our audiences, rather than beaming a broadcast at them. Our curiosity earns us their trust.
#3 Curiosity builds confidence. At a recent town hall, a banking executive started his keynote by chuckling and saying, “Wow, there’s a lot of you, I’m incredibly nervous about dropping this mic!” It got a warm laugh, instant rapport and relaxed the room. By publicly joking about himself and embracing playing with the audience, my coachee embodied confident, curious leadership (and never dropped the mic). It sounds like a paradox—how can we be confident unless we know for sure? We all get nervous, and we all screw up. And we never know everything.
Confidence is not about talent or perfection, but about permitting and committing ourselves to fully connecting with an audience in an authentic way. There’s intention in any communication, but if we’re improvising, we’re not clinging nervously to a rigid script, terrified of failing. We get to relax and easily field questions. The audience (of any size) gets to relax, too. And most importantly, we can accept making (smart) mistakes without shame, a crucial part of learning and relationship-building. The more open and curious we are, the more confident we appear.
#4 Curiosity makes us flexible. Improv trains us to think of ourselves as performers, and actors and singers onstage make what they call “adjustments” in their performances all the time. Like stage performers, people in organizations must stay relevant to audiences’ needs and expectations by experimenting with new communication adjustments – reacting nimbly in the moment, changing stale behavior, and pivoting with surprises. We face ever-shifting member needs and communication channels, new and exploitable sources of information, and diverse emerging stories and voices.
Changing our behavior helps us grow. When we notice conversations are going nowhere or emotions are too volatile, we can make a small but impactful communication adjustment. A senior manager I coached at a financial non-profit chose to change his usual full-steam-ahead pace of speech during a crisis. He simply paused for two seconds at the start of the huddle. He tried out this risky (to him) new approach to dispel the tight sense of panic in the room. And it worked—everyone looked at him, took a breath, and dropped their shoulders. His choice to tweak his typical style was the cure to the panic. He would never have made this adjustment without first being curious.
An improv-based system of curious communication helps us notice how (or if) we’re applying good communication habits and really reaching our target audiences. Improv makes us brave solution-seekers by creating the space for honest dialogue and engagement. We lose our fear and gain a sense of collaborative flexibility. If we are curious and improvisational, we learn to be the trustworthy communicators we’d all like to be.