3 Things Improv Can Teach You About How to Be a Successful Entrepreneur

Being an entrepreneur involves thinking on your feet. A lot. But that’s not necessarily a skill professors teach you in business school. Thinking on your feet means more than simply coming up with quick responses to unexpected questions. Real presence is about listening—to others and also to yourself—and finding the best way to turn those impulses into useful action.

But you can’t get better at something without practicing, and it turns out that people have been working on how to think faster and better on your feet for a while now—through the rules and techniques of improv. 

Taking an improv class is a great way to hone your “thinking on your feet” skills, but it’s about much more than just that. The lessons you learn about listening, about collaboration, and about creativity will last you a lifetime.

Here are some principles of improv that can help you to become a more successful entrepreneur.

1. Learn to Say “Yes and…”

The first rule of improv is to never negate what your partner says. Only affirm it and offer something more on top of the initial idea. Why is this such an important rule for improv? There are several reasons. For one, since everything is on the fly, it’s not like you can say, “We’re on the moon” and then a perfectly-constructed lunar landscape suddenly flies in from the ceiling. Instead, your words construct the reality, and it’s really confusing for the audience when one person wants to be on the moon and another person wants to be in the Old West. As a collaborator in constructing the reality, you might counter with, “Yes we’re on the moon, AND we’re all alone on this space station.” This is doubly true for the performers, who need to be able to follow what’s going on and also find a way to move the action forward.

The other side of the equation is what constant no’s do to collaboration. Think about trying to work with someone who constantly contradicts you, or who is always focused on why an idea can’t happen. The truth is that too many no’s simple stifle creativity and begin to feel oppressive. After a while, you feel like nothing you come up with will be good enough, so you start to keep all your ideas to yourself.

In your small business, it’s important to remember that your words and attitudes shape the environment and work culture around you. Yes, you need to be discerning when it comes to making smart decisions that will move your business in the right direction. AND you can still communicate those decisions in a way that leaves your team feeling empowered, not diminished. See what I did there? The next time you’re thinking of giving a hard “no” or a “but,” think about how you might be able to still say “yes,” even if you need to redirect the idea a little bit. The boost you give your team will be well worth it.

2. Get Rid of Your Inner Critic

The funny thing about improv is that you are often the biggest barrier to your own success. Here’s what I mean. We all have a part of ourselves that listens to what we say and judges it. This inner critic can be a harsh evaluator, and we often don’t have another voice in our head to provide the positive side of things. Like any good censor, what this critic hates the most is any idea that is unconventional, out-of-the-box, or contrarian. Unfortunately, this means people have a tendency to dismiss good ideas as stupid out of fear of how we imagine others will judge them.

Instead, what improv teaches you to do is to look for ways to get rid of your inner critic and start listening to the actual original ideas you have without judgment or fear. And isn’t that what we want for our own small business or startup? The ideas that are off the beaten path are often the ones that will have the greatest impact. The problem is, most people have been conditioned to build up critical habits for years, so even if you know that you are particularly prone to self-censorship, you’re going to need to move through a phase of re-conditioning to improve your business behaviors.

3. Learn to Make My Team Members Look Good

The worst thing you can possibly do in improv is to go for the laugh, which is counterintuitive because we usually associate improv closely with comedy. But in an improv game or scene, it’s misguided to aim purely for comedy because you miss out on all of the elements that make a joke funny: the setup. Instead, what I learned to do is to focus on setting up the other people on stage with me.

Rather than trying to land the perfect punchline (which would also kickstart my internal censor), I tried to put my partners in a place where they couldn’t help but come up with a line that would get a big reaction. For entrepreneurs, this might be the biggest lesson of all: it’s not all about you. You have a team, and you want to put them in a position to succeed. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you came up with all the best ideas, it’s whether or not the plan that your team made together works. If you can set your team up to give you their best work, you’ll make something even greater together.

What You Can Do Right Now

Thinking on your feet is key to being a great entrepreneur, and the lessons from improv can help

These 3 takeaways will get you started.

  • Say “yes and” by defaulting to positive, affirming collaboration.
  • Don’t censor your ideas.
  • Strive to set your team members up for success, and always make them look good.
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