The Creative Impact of Improvisation

Written by: Amy Marquez

Improvisation is a very old and time-tested form of theater. The earliest use of improvisation is found in records of a Roman farce performed in 391 BC. Given its long history, it’s surprising to me that in our modern world, comedy–and comedic improvisation–is considered a low-brow form of entertainment. It is generally eschewed by the erudite. But it shouldn’t be.

My own experience with improvisation spans 20+ years. And in the middle of that I took a hiatus from performing when my husband and I started a family. For four years, I did no improv. And my brain seemed to stutter to a screeching halt. I felt dull and less energetic. Creativity started taking more effort than it had previously. I felt like I was on autopilot. But I chalked that up to being a new, perpetually sleep-deprived parent. I’m sure that sleep deprivation didn’t help, but at the time I didn’t even realize what the real problem was.

Ramping up my brain

When I first came back to improv from that break, I felt like my brain was having to wade through mud to get ideas out. I looked at my fellow troupe members and marveled at how quickly they could craft a scene or throw out ideas. But after a couple of months with the troupe, my thoughts moved much more quickly. I could keep up with the rest of my team, and I suddenly felt so much more alive than I had in years.

I noticed something else. My creative process at work started to go into overdrive. I was able to generate, dismiss, or accept design ideas very quickly. It was much easier to do collaborative creative brainstorming and get dozens of ideas out because my thought processes had become accustomed to it. I felt like my mental Rolodex (here’s a link for the young whippersnappers who have no idea what a Rolodex is) was stuffed with ideas and was spinning impossibly fast; ideas were flying.

It was a wonderful feeling–like moving out of the fog into the sunlight.

The science behind creativity

I decided to do some research on this, and as it turns out, this isn’t just a fluke, it’s a proven scientific method of improving brain function.

Dr. Charles Limb, a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist, has dedicated his research to the art of improvisation and how it increases creativity. He has a fascinating TED Talk on the topic. His studies focus on jazz piano improvisation, and he demonstrates that the same increase in creativity is seen when the subject is improvising while rapping.

A post by self-proclaimed “biohacker” Dave Asprey about Limb’s studies summed up what was found to occur in the brain while improvising:

“During improvisation, the self-monitoring part of the brain (lateral prefrontal for you brain hardware hackers out there) deactivated, while the self-expression part of the brain got activated (medial prefrontal). Literally, that means that to be creative, you have to stop picking on yourself while boosting your self-expression abilities.”

Turn off your filters

If there is one thing you get practice doing in improv, it’s in turning off your brain’s filters. In improv, there are no bad ideas, you don’t hesitate on an impulse–you must charge forward with the scene and be fearless about making mistakes.

Applying the same principles in creative work comes more naturally once your brain is trained to do it in an improvisational setting.

So how can you bring this into your own work when you don’t perform improv on a regular basis? Bring the improvisation to your team. There are simple exercises you can do in a team setting that will help break down the voice of doubt and hesitation.

You can begin very simply so that your team becomes accustomed to the idea of improvising. If the idea of finding extra time to do this is daunting, take advantage of weekly meetings (like staff meetings). Set aside one of those meetings a month to do improvisational exercises.

The pep talk

Make it clear to your team that this is an activity where mistakes are expected and even welcome. This is a safe environment for them to be silly…because when everyone looks silly, no one looks silly.

Tell them not to overthink reactions and to act spontaneously. That means listen to what the other players are saying without trying to formulate a response before they’re finished. This forces the players to practice some of the key elements of active listening.

You’ll also want to review some of the basic rules of improv with the team.

Warm up exercises

Keep in mind that in all of these games, there needs to be a coach. Someone directing the team members in what to do. The coach can participate in the warm up exercises, but there are some structures that require a “director” and the coach should fulfill that role.

  1. To get your team engaged, start with an alphabet challenge. There are many names this particular structure goes by, so I’ll leave it up to you to call it what you’d like.

    Instructions
    Have the team stand in a circle.
    Decide who goes first.
    The first person starts by saying a word that starts with the letter “A”, and points at another player.
    The second player must quickly say a word that starts with the letter “B”, and point at another player.
    Repeat this until the team has gone through the entire alphabet.

    This is a simple game, but it primes the brain and gets everyone on the same footing.

  2. A more complex warm up exercise is called “What are you doing?”

    Instructions
    Have the team stand in a line.
    The first player steps forward and begins miming a simple action. (Example: buttering bread.)
    The second player steps forward and observes the first, then asks “What are you doing?”
    The first player responds with something completely different than the action they are miming. (Example: “I’m climbing a mountain.”)
    The second player begins to mime the action the first player said–climbing a mountain in this case.
    The first player steps back to where they were in the line.
    The third player steps forward, looks at what the second player is miming and asks “What are you doing?”
    Repeat the steps above until all of the team members have had a chance to participate.

Intermediate structures/scenes

Once everyone is comfortable with the warm-up exercises, you can move on to some more complex interactions. These involve a handful of participants and the rest of the team act as the audience.

  1. This first scene is called Oracle. It requires three players to act as one entity. It also requires a “handler.” The handler should introduce the all-knowing and powerful Oracle, who can answer any question.

    Instructions
    Have the three players sit one in front of the other at different levels–one on the floor, one on a chair, and one either standing or on a bar-height stool.
    The handler introduces the Oracle and asks if anyone has a question for the all-knowing Oracle. If there is hesitation to ask a question, the handler can suggest a topic.
    (Example: “Today the Oracle will answer all of your questions about bacon. What would you like to know about bacon?”)
    The players answer in order with only one word each. Each player has to build on the word that the player before them said.
    Once that question is answered, the handle asks the audience for another question.

    Example:
    Audience Member: Oracle, why is bacon so good?
    Player 1: Bacon
    Player 2: is
    Player 3: good
    Player 1: because
    Player 2: it
    Player 3: is
    Player 1: bad.

    The players may want to prearrange a signal that their answer is over. Something physical like waving their arms or snapping would work well.

  2. Freeze tag is a structure that requires players to create a scene based on a physical pose. It takes a little more setup than the other scenes and works best when you have no more than six players at a time. Make sure the coach has a whistle for this one.

    Instructions
    The players stand in a line.
    The first two players step forward.
    If there is an “audience,” ask someone to volunteer to position the two players for the initial scene.
    (Positioning rules: The position should be socially acceptable, the position should obey the laws of gravity, and the two players need to be touching. It can be a little touch–like a finger to a finger–or it can be a lot of touch.)
    If there is no audience, the coach should tell the first two players to assume a position they would if they were playing a sport. The coach should pick a specific sport, and the same positioning rules apply.
    When the players are in position, the coach blows the whistle to start the scene.
    The players must build their scene based on the initial position, but should start moving out of that position as soon as possible.
    After about a minute, the coach should blow the whistle when the players are in an interesting position.
    When the whistle is blown, the players freeze.
    The next player in line approaches the frozen players, taps one of them on the back letting them know they can get back in line, and assumes that player’s position.
    The two players then start a completely different and unrelated scene based on the new position.
    Repeat until all of the players have rotated in and out at least twice.

For more improvisational warm-ups, games, and exercises, you can look through the Improv Encyclopedia.

Remember “Yes, and…”

This handful of exercises will get your team started and help break down mental barriers to creativity. The more you do this, the less they will second guess themselves. And remember to emphasize the king of all improv rules, “Yes, and….”

There is no faster way to kill the energy in a scene than when one player says “no” to another. Forward progress is the objective. If a player tells you that you’re making a documentary on unicorns, don’t say “No, we’re not, because unicorns don’t exist.” The response should be an affirmation and a continuation.

The Benefits of Play

I’m grateful that I took a break from improv while I was a new mom. Putting the focus on my family was the right thing for me to do. And the mental impact of quitting improv taught me valuable lesson. Coming back to it has fundamentally changed the importance I place on collaboration, creative play, pretending, and imagination, both at home and at work.
The National Institute for Play cites multiple research efforts which found that pretend play “remains key to innovation and creativity.” They state that play mixed with science begets transformation.
Whether at work, at home, or on the stage, because of my continued experiences with improvisation, I bring that sense of play with me. Not only does it make life more fun, it has also helped foster an early, more mature sense of humor in my children (now elementary school age) where wordplay, puns, and imagination are a part of everyday conversation. It has also put me on a first-name basis with the principal…but in a good way.

Going Beyond “Yes – and…”

Written by: Amy Marquez

My first experience in improvisational comedy was in 1989. I was a freshman at Texas A&M University. Some of the students in the theater department decided to get an improv troupe started and somehow talked me into joining them.

In the beginning, I was petrified to perform without a script. Looking back now, I can see just how much improv has taught me and how it informs the decisions I make when working with a project team to create a cohesive user experience.

There are a multitude of “rules” to improv. The one most people are familiar with is the rule of “Yes – and.” The principle behind “Yes – and” is that for a story to be successfully crafted, all players involved must agree on the premise. So if a fellow actor points at you and says “your face is green,” you accept that and move the scene forward with a green face.

What we don’t often hear about are all of the other rules of improv that can be pulled into daily work as an experience designer. What happens after you’ve said yes? What comes after the “and”?

I’ve combed through my books and through various improv websites to pull out rules I started taking for granted about 20 years ago and was surprised at just how much the regular practice of these rules has shaped my perspective when creating designs with a team or client.

Add new information

The follow on rule to “Yes – and” is add new information. Have a plan when you say “and.” You can’t move the scene forward without it. And there will be times that saying yes is very difficult. What the team or client wants is not always what you will feel is the best aesthetic, so delicately phrasing your yes’s is important.

So, if a stakeholder is telling you they want a monochromatic blue palette for their website, you answer “That sounds great – and we can use complementary color accents, like yellows or oranges, to highlight important calls to action.”

Don’t negate or deny

The opposite of “Yes – and” is “No – but.” When a project kicks off, don’t start with what the system limitations are, don’t start with the baggage of knowing that the experience needed will break corporate standard rules.

Negating is also referred to as blocking. Take time to think when your first reaction is to deny, negate, or block someone else’s ideas.

If your product owner says “we want to add social media buttons to this,” don’t tell her that’s a dumb idea. That’s a knee jerk reaction, with the operative word being jerk. Explore the idea. Think about what benefits social sharing may bring to the customer and the business.

Always check your impulses

Checking your impulses isn’t limited to cases where you want to negate or deny something. You also have to check your impulses to see if what you’re thinking aligns with the product goals. If you have design principles set out for your project, measure your impulse against them to see if it aligns with those principles.

You may have a fantastic idea, but if it’s not part of the goals of the project and doesn’t align with scenarios, personas or design principles, table that thought. Write it down for a future project where it may be a great asset.

Look beyond the words

If you’re designing experiences, you have either become or are becoming a keen observer of human interactions. Look at physical cues of people you’re meeting with. Is someone uncomfortable or unusually silent? Maybe they aren’t good at speaking out in a group setting, but if you chat with them afterwards they may offer you a wealth of insight you would have otherwise missed out on.

The same goes with usability testing. Don’t just look at how easily or efficiently the participant is getting through your flow, look at their body language. Look at their forehead – is the brow furrowed? Are the eyebrows raised? Are they tapping their feet nervously? Or are their shoulders relaxed?

Aside from just the physical, there may be underlying motivations for the way people are behaving. Try to get to the heart of the meaning behind their words and actions.

Never underestimate or condescend to your audience

Underestimating your audience is a diva move to make. That doesn’t mean you should throw around words like “affordance,” or refer to “Fitt’s law” with people who aren’t design professionals, but it does mean that you need to be careful not to talk down to them. Talking down to someone tells them that you think you’re better than they are. And guess what? You’re not.

We all have roles to play in our daily work, and one is not necessarily more important or more clever than the other. Give your “audience” respect, and you will get respect in return.

Work to the top of your intelligence

This is the flip side of not underestimating your audience. Don’t underestimate yourself. Working to the top of your intelligence means not taking the easy way out. If someone says “but that’s how we’ve always done it,” challenge the status quo.

Push yourself every day to do something better, to learn. Keep up with the blogs and articles about UX practice and theory. Engage your colleagues in meaningful, actionable discussions about the work you’re doing.

Trust your partners

Every project you work on comes with partners: front end developers, project managers, stakeholders, information architects. Trust them to do their jobs. They got where they are for a reason.

In return, you should expect them to trust you to do your job. If they don’t, then that’s an important conversation to have with your partners. Help them understand why they need to trust you.

And most important of all, trust yourself. Your experience and your expertise led you to where you are today. You need to trust in your own talent and skill. Because if you don’t trust in yourself, you can’t possibly expect others to trust you.

Do try this at home (or work)

With every new venture you have to start somewhere. I was petrified as a teenager trying improv for the first time. I can remember it very clearly. But now improv is second nature to me. Public speaking is not an issue. I was never a shy or quiet person, and improv has given me more confidence and tools to work with.

That didn’t happen over night. It happened with repeated practice. Take these rules and try putting them into practice in your daily routine. Three months from now, see what changes this has brought to your projects, clients and project teams. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.