Lessons In Leadership And Success From Improv Comedy

Improv comedy is a unique form of comedy in that it involves no scripts. Every piece of material is made up on the spot by the performers. In what other profession, entertainment or otherwise, do you make up the act on the spot? (On purpose, anyways.) The interesting nature of improv comedy has led me to identify some lessons that can help you be more successful in your everyday life.

There are two unbreakable rules in improv:

1) Always push the story forward.

2) Make the other person look good.

The second unbreakable rule is a phenomenal guide to being a good leader. I think a lot of people naturally sweep this under the rug. Our egos can take a hit when someone else gets praise. Most people won’t go out of their way to show praise for good work—nor will they create an environment or situation that actively helps someone else get noticed for good work. (We may give praise when it’s convenient, but even then it’s probably forced.)

This is so incredibly backwards! Go out of your way to make other people look good: friends, coworkers, or whomever. It will pay you back in huge dividends. Of course, this praise should always be genuine. People are very good at spotting suck-ups. 

BONUS Tip: This is also a great way to become more popular in your social network. People like being around people who make them feel good. Did a friend introduce you to someone new at a party? Say something nice to compliment this friend to your new, shared acquaintance. Your new friend will notice, and you’ll be more memorable–even if they can’t exactly explain why you stand out.

Let’s return to the first unbreakable rule of improv: Always push the story forward.

In improv, if your counterpart on stage takes the story in a new direction, the absolute worst thing you can do is provide a closed-end response. For example,

Funny Guy #1: “I have to tell you the story of my weekend, it’s unbelievable!”

Funny Gal #2: “Oh, do tell!”

Funny Guy #1: “I broke my leg…”

Funny Gal #2: “Wow, that’s terrible…”

Congratulations Funny Gal #2, you just ended the scene and the room is full of crickets. Every improv comedian knows that no matter what, you always push the story forward.

Funny Guy #1: “I broke my leg…”

Funny Gal #2: “Wow, that’s terrible… BUT how did you manage that when your Netflix account says you were binge-watching Ozark all weekend?” [Audience fills with uncontrollable laughter.]

No matter how ridiculous, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, you keep moving forward. There’s always a “but” or an “and.” How does this translate to success in our lives?

No matter what, you have to keep pushing the story forward.

“I didn’t lose weight this week, BUT I ate out a lot. This week I can dial it down and eat more home-cooked meals.”

“I’m discouraged because my workouts haven’t been feeling great, BUT I’ve been stressed with deadlines at work and haven’t been sleeping well. I’m going to focus on my sleep this week.”

“I’m burnt out at work, BUT I like my job. My boss and my colleagues are great, SO I’m going to plan a vacation. Then I can relax and refresh, AND when I return I’ll be ready to tackle those projects. Then…” (You get the idea.)

The point is that your story is only finished when you decide to end the scene. Until you’re satisfied, keep pushing the scene forward.

I challenge you to identify ways you might be prematurely ending scenes of your life, being hard on yourself or quitting too soon. Then, Go out and give someone genuine praise today for something they did well.


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