I don’t regularly seek out ways to intentionally embarrass myself in a public forum. Nevertheless, I find myself four weeks into an improv class, facing the final “big event” this week: a show…in front of a large group of strangers…that will be watching me act ridiculous. And I did this to better myself professionally?
Let me clarify: I’m a huge fan of comedy and of improv, but I’m not the type to act silly in front of a crowd. Nor do I love public speaking, for that matter. My “stage” tendencies (if I have any) fall more in line with the Girl Scouts: “be prepared.” I’m a thinker. I plan. I like to analyze situations before jumping in.
It’s exactly why I wanted to do something that pushed me out of my comfort zone. The most memorable and meaningful experiences often happen when you kick yourself off the ledge. Or, as one of my favorite female comedians, Tina Fey, said, “You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”
Here are a few things I’ve taken away from my improv class, which I think can also make you a stronger PR professional:
- Bring a brick, not a cathedral. I can’t take credit for this line; our instructors repeat it every class. But I love the meaning, perhaps because it applies so well to PR. For a scene to work, you can’t be stuck to your own agenda. You have to listen to what others are saying, react and build on it.
- Don’t try to be perfect. Perfection can waste a lot of energy and get you nowhere. The fun part of improv is that it forces you to make quick assumptions and work with wherever your scene partners take it next. Sometimes it’s hilarious and other times it’s a dud, but you can’t just sit there thinking. Good PR professionals must take risks and, more importantly, help others understand the potential pay-offs of taking risks. If you spend too much time dwelling on the perfect message or crafting a perfect document, your competitors and the media will pass you by. There’s a great post I came across recently on HBR’s Blog Network by Ron Ashkenas that talks about the problem with perfection in business.
- Validate, don’t negate. Good improvisers work with what’s thrown their way; they don’t drastically change direction or negate what is said. They listen and observe the subtleties of their scene partners to keep the evolving scene on track. This is also a skill of great PR advisors. They are great influencers not because they say “yes” to everyone, but because they are extraordinarily good listeners and observers. They can get people talking and effectively propose alternative solutions by asking smart questions or making keen observations.
Finally, I’d add that it helps not to take yourself too seriously. There is no way you can in improv. The class has been a fun and rewarding experience, and has reminded me that we all need to exercise our goofy side on a regular basis. If you’re in St. Louis or L.A., I’d encourage you to check out the Improv Trick (I have no affiliation, other than embarrassing myself there for the remainder of this week).
What are you doing to push yourself beyond your comfort zone?
Photo by Bill Streeter / Lo-Fi Saint Louis
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