How Taking Improv Classes Made Me A Better Professional

How Taking Improv Classes Made Me A Better Professional

Adam Wong

Adam Wong, Associate Director, Center for Student Activities, Leadership, and Service, New York University

I don’t have a long-term career trajectory. I’ve gone back and forth about moving back to my home state of California after being away for 5+ years. I’ve thought about going back to school to obtain my doctorate degree. It really started to stress me out that I didn’t have a concrete plan for the next 3-5 years.

I knew I wanted to take advantage of living in New York City, since I know that my long-term plan does not include being dependent on public transportation, living in tight quarters, or being surrounded by 9 million other city dwellers. I started taking improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre after I made the decision that the time was not right for me to go back for my Ed.D., but I still wanted to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone.

While improv definitely challenged me and got me out of my comfort zone, an unintended consequence has been my ability to be a better professional in the workplace.

For those that are unfamiliar, there are two main forms of improve: short-form (made popular by Whose Line is it Anyway?) and long-form (think Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City, Groundlings). In long-form improv, performers create the ‘game’, or the funny thing, as they create the scene. This leads to more realistic scenes with the humor coming from the characters and their relationships to one another.

Below are three fundamental parts of improv that has improved my professional work.

Listen, then react.

When you step out into a scene with your partner, you have no idea what your partner will say or do. A good improviser won’t have a preconceived idea in their head, but rather will react to the top of their intelligence about what their scene partner just said. This is harder said than done in the workplace. Often times our natural reaction is to formulate rebuttals and counterpoints in our head before our colleague stops talking. The issue with this is that you can’t fully engage in listening if you’re already coming up with what you want to say while somebody else is talking. A good improviser and good professional should be able to engage in listening, absorb the information and then react. What you say may be still be a counterpoint but you have at least given your scene partner/colleague the respect and attention they deserve.

Yes, and...

‘Yes, and...’ is probably the most common “rule” of improv that people are familiar with. The ‘yes’ refers to agreeing with the premise your scene partner has set. For example if your scene partner says, “Wow, it’s so hot here in North Carolina”, you can’t come back with “What are you talking about? We’re in Alaska.” This is what’s called a denial. Finding agreement is boh so important in improv and at work because it creates a team approach and validates the individual in what they’re presenting.

The ‘and’ refers to adding information. In improv, not only do you need to find the agreement, but you also need to add more information. In the previous example a response of “yeah, it is hot in North Carolina” doesn’t add value to the scene. In order to keep the scene going and be a good scene partner, you’ll need to add more information. This applies to the work place as well. After taking improv classes, I noticed in meetings that I would say things that didn’t necessarily add value, but rather I felt obligated to say something so colleagues know I was physically present. Now, I might speak less often in meetings, but when I do, I make sure that I can add value and substance to the conversation. Student affairs professionals can be a talkative group. Adding value to discussions will gain you credibility and leave people wanting more of you.

Step off the backline.

Stepping off the backline is a support move in improv; it means coming from the backline during an already established scene. You can add information, portray a character that had been mentioned in dialogue, or literally just be an object in the background to help paint the scene a little better. Regardless of how you step off the backline, it’s important that you do. It’s a way to support your fellow improvisers without taking the spotlight away from them. In student affairs, we can have so many things going on with our own work that supporting colleagues becomes secondary. It’s important to show your support in any way possible.

Taking improv classes has been one of the best things that I’ve done to progress my professional skill set. Yes, most of these things are common knowledge, but putting theory into practice can be a challenge. Listen to your colleagues, stay engaged and add information, and support your team. Do this all the time and you’ll be a better professional for it…not to mention a pretty good improviser too.

About the author: Adam Wong was born and raised in Southern California. He received his Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration and Master's Degree in Postsecondary Administration and Student Affairs both from the University of Southern California (Fight On!). After graduating from graduate school, Adam spent 3 years working at Duke University in the Student Activities office. Adam currently works at New York University in the Center for Student Activities, Leadership, and Service and has been at NYU since 2013. His professional interests include student organization budgeting, new technology, and dissecting retirement plans (not kidding). Adam is an avid sports fan and is currently working on his bucket list of attending a baseball game at every major league baseball stadium (he's done 24 out of 30). Fun fact: Adam was once in a Pizza Hut commercial directed by the director of Space Jam. You can connect with him on Twitter @adamswong

Adam Wong

Adam Wong, Associate Director, Center for Student Activities, Leadership, and Service, New York University