Five business (and life) lessons learned from improv


Alli McKee is a start-up founder and CEO.  She’s also a student of improv.

Over the course of our conversation last week on Sales Pipeline Radio it became clear that these are both parallel interests/pursuits as well as tightly related to each other.

When I asked Alli if her improv classes had improved her approach to business, her answer was a life lesson for all of us.  These lessons apply to sales, negotiations, partnerships, friendships and life in general.

1. Learn how to listen
If you’re following a script, you simply remember your own lines and wait until everybody else is done with theirs to speak again. In a scripted conversation, you can literally give a command performance and have no idea what others have said.

But with improv, playing off of what others have just said is everything.  In business, sales and life, learning how to listen – actively listen – is key to creating engagement, interest and reciprocation.

2. Relationships are key
Alli said that in improv, you give your partner a name early.  It makes them more than just an acting partner, with a name you can create and lean into a story about them.  With prospective partners or prospects or others, getting to know them just a little beyond the formal transaction creates empathy and enough professional intimacy to help accelerate positive next steps.

3. Conversations are more successful than monologues
Sure, there are some amazing and famous monologues in movie and theater history.  But a monologue in improv?  That would not only be lame and awkward, it would literally defeat the purpose.

Conversations are far more interesting – to the actors as well as the audience.  They’re more engaging, more dynamic, they help explore and mature the story.  If both sides are talking, both sides are contributing.  If when both sides are contributing, consensus isn’t far behind.

4. Humility is critical
A common improv technique is to answer your stage partner with “Yes, and…”.  Saying “and” instead of “but” accepts what someone says, even if you don’t agree with it, but keeps the conversation fluid and moving forward.

We don’t have all the answers.  Even if we don’t immediately agree with what someone else said, it’s typically far more productive to keep the conversation moving forward than to shut it down or harshly redirect it.

5. Have a light and easy approach
We take ourselves too seriously too often.  Start conversations with a smile.  Whenever possible, assume the best of intentions from others.  Self deprecate when appropriate.

As Eric Schmidt once said, “Life is short – work with people you enjoy“.  That goes both ways.