From Improv to Improve: How Comedy Improvisation Can Help Your Association Career

From Improv to Improve: How Comedy Improvisation Can Help Your Association Career

By Valerie Good-Turney

One of the reasons I first moved to Chicago was to continue studying improvisational comedy (also known as improv). Having taken classes at The Second City and the iO Theater and performing in countless shows for families, late-night crowds, and everyone in between for more than 11 years, there are many lessons I have learned that become engrained in you as an improviser. These lessons are key to helping you (and your team) be successful on stage. But success isn’t only about making people laugh—it’s also about creating real, authentic moments that you, your fellow performers, and your audience share in. Moments that, by the very nature of improv, can’t be recreated.  

Having worked in the association industry for almost 4 years, I have learned several lessons from improv that can be connected to the work we do in the association industry.

Focus on Others, Not Yourself

Association work, just like improv, is a team sport. If you are solely focused on yourself and your own achievements, you will find that the overall work suffers (whether that is a project for your association or the show in which you are performing). If you watch an improv show and see people who are always vying for the spotlight, making a scene just about what they are doing, or striving to get a laugh each time, they are likely in it more for themselves than the whole team, which causes the team’s scene to suffer. Great improvisers focus on making their teammates look good and creating a seamless environment in which everyone is included and feels like their contributions are valuable and wanted. This allows for a multitude of innovative ideas to be introduced to the scene and built upon; these ideas are usually the most creative and engaging, resonating well with the audience.

The same holds true with association work. No matter what kind of team you have, it’s crucial for each player—whether they’re from Operations, Marketing, Sales, Finance, Member Services, or any other area of the organization—to not only bring their best ideas to the table but to also create an environment in which they welcome other team members’ ideas and feedback on how to make the association and its various processes the best they can be! By doing that, everyone shines.

Yes, and…

If you’ve heard anything about improv basics, you’ve probably heard of the concept of “Yes, and....” It boils down to acceptance and building on one another’s choices. For example, if during a scene you say, “We’re going to be late to the party,” my job as your scene partner is to accept your contribution to the scene (the “yes”) and add to it (the “and”). So, I would respond with, “Yes, I’m sorry I forgot to pick up the dessert, okay?” The goal is to work together to build the scene. If I denied your contribution and said something like, “We’re not going to a party. We’re cowboys in the 1800s,” you would probably feel very uncomfortable, the audience would feel uncomfortable, it leaves us in an unproductive space, and the energy and momentum would come to a grinding halt.

It’s the same with association work. All sorts of ideas make their way to your desk. From your internal team to your board, volunteers, and consultants, everyone brings ideas to the table. But with looming deadlines and limited budgets, it’s easy to brush some of those off with a “No, there’s no way” or a “We’ve been there and tried that” mentality. Yet, shutting down ideas in that way can have a lasting impact not only on the people who suggest them but also on the association at large. Your internal team or board may think twice about sharing ideas in the future, and your association could miss out on something great.

The concept of “Yes, and...” doesn’t necessarily mean you have to implement every idea, but you should consider “building the scene” with your association partner. Asking follow-up questions about how their idea might work, sharing it during a team brainstorming session, and most importantly, thanking them for their contribution are easy ways to not immediately say “no” to an idea while not committing to a full-on “yes.” By doing this, you create an environment in which your staff and volunteers feel valued, heard, supported, and engaged, because they can share ideas without being shut down.

Make Confident Choices

Let’s say you’re watching a scene during which the performer says, “I’m sick of being a pilot,” but it’s followed by dead air (i.e., no laughter). The performer tries again, saying, “Just kidding, I’m not a pilot, I’m a surfer.” Again, the audience doesn’t respond. So, the performer tries to engage the audience by stating, “Actually, I’m a dad on my way to a PTA meeting.”

By this time, the audience has started to lose faith in the performer’s ability to trust his choices. There’s nothing wrong with starting out a scene with the first pilot line, but the performer needed to trust that his team members could build on that choice, even when there is dead air. Being confident in the choices we make, big or small, is necessary for giving a scene a strong foundation.

In the association world, we also need to be confident in our choices. That doesn’t mean we can’t be flexible or have multiple options available to help solve a problem. But, we should feel empowered to make decisions. As an early-career professional, that has been a hard-learned truth that I would pass on to the next generation in the association field. Everyone brings a unique skillset and knowledge base to their position, regardless of background. It’s important to ask for feedback and input, but also be willing to put forth your own suggestions on how to implement a plan or tackle an obstacle. The timing might not be right to implement your idea, but keep trying and be confident. Trust in yourself and your ideas. You are capable and your contributions are valuable! And your “audience” will appreciate having someone that always has an idea ready.

And . . .  Scene!

Improv is something that everyone can do (I mean, you improvise every day when you live your life, right?). We face surprises on a daily basis, and improv helps you respond to the unexpected with poise, confidence, and sometimes a little bit of humor. By providing the opportunity to build up your peers, work as a team, make deliberate choices, and face the unexpected, improv provides plenty of tools to help you in your role as an association professional.

If you’re interested in trying it out “for real”, you can look into classes for individuals or workshops that will work in the corporate environment. It’s a fun way to create, express yourself, and connect with other people!

Valerie Good-Turney is an Operations Specialist for the American Academy of Home Care Medicine.

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