Part 2: how improv can boost creativity and collaboration in business

In part 1, we covered ‘let yourself fail’ and the ‘yes and’ principles.

This blog looks at how Improv can reframe the way you interact with others.

Make your partner look and feel like a genius

People often say to me ‘It must be terrifying to do improv, there’s so much pressure to be funny’. Yet, Improv is really about the collective contribution of the group – not you as an individual. There’s nothing more irritating than someone in an improv scene on their own agenda and taking the attention away from the group. This irritation might be familiar in the office too!

The focus instead lies on how to set your scene partners up for them to be in the best possible light. How you can make it easy for them to add something to whatever you’ve just said.This completely takes the pressure off you so you relax and just focus better on being present in the scene. What’s more, if everyone is trying to make each other look good, there’s a good chance everyone succeeds!

At work, we can so often be worried about our own performance – we tend to have individual appraisals and targets. However, no one ever really achieves anything alone. Our culture applauds the lone genius but Einstein, Edison and Jobs – they all had teams of people helping them! Ideas were honed through collaboration and discussions.

Improv encourages us back towards the creative power of the group. At work we can often feel that should never present an idea until it’s a fully formed and ‘perfect’. It’s a real creativity inhibitor. Instead, sharing and building ideas as a collective allows them to evolve into so much more than one mind could have created on their own.

Be fully present

There is no more important skill in improv than listening! When you’re in a performance, you have to be so fully present because new details are flying around you by the second – everyone suddenly has new names, are in new settings with new scenarios! If you miss the details, the audience is going to notice.

In real life however, we often listen only to respond. When someone is talking, we are busy formulating our reply rather than intently tuning in. We miss so much detail that way. There are many improv games and exercises, which challenges us to listen to every single word our partners say. It’s enlightening.

In business, imagine if everyone listened in an ‘improv’ way to colleagues, clients and stakeholders. It not only reduces the chance of creating products no-one wants or marketing campaigns that miss the point. It’s deeper than that. If you truly listen to someone, they feel heard – one of our basic human needs. It changes the way someone feels about you.

So not only do you give someone the gift of being heard, you also get access to a lot more accurate information to enable better decisions. It’s something you need to actively switch on though. Honing these skills in the improv classroom gives you a better chance of activating this ‘listening mode’ in any meeting or important conversation.

A final word

The real beauty of Improv is not in any one of these principles but in the alchemy when they are all in force together! Imagine – you are not afraid to share an idea because your team-mates have got your back. Ideas grow into something because everyone  ‘yes, ands’ what is offered. Solutions develop and evolve. Everyone is fully listening and responding to each other in an attentive way.

I grant you this may still seem like a distant fantasy for the office. Yet, what if you chose to just implement some of these for yourself? What would that do for your performance? How would it change how others viewed you?

What’s more, it’s a more joyful approach to work. Improv advocates permission to ‘play’ again. It’s an extremely fun way to refine the very best of human skills.

For more information on how to bring Improv into your office or team, get in touch with Nicola (

Improv can boost creativity and collaboration in business

Why is it that companies such as Facebook, Uber, Apple and Pepsico are part of the growing trend in bringing improv into their employee training programmes? What can we learn from an art form that spontaneously creates a whole show out of nothing? Well, it turns out – a lot!

I’ve been a hugely avid student of Improv for years now. I’ve even created my own workshop to introduce the principles of improv into the companies I work with. I believe they might just be the antidote to revitalising creativity and collaboration in large organisations.

Improv is firstly the permission to play. A concept so lacking in our adult lives. When did being an adult become such a serious business? We place huge importance on fun and imagination for children – we see the value in how it builds confidence, learning and experimentation.

Yet, we ignore this need as adults. Not only is it a joy killer but also is inherently detrimental to innovation and originality.

The principles of Improv can not only regarded as sage wisdom for life but also sound rules for business. Let’s delve into two of these principles now (with more to follow in the next blog post).

LET yourself fail

Failing is actually the easy part. We’re human. We naturally learn best through experimenting which means trial and error. However, we’ve become so fearful of the ‘error’ part that we stop ourselves from the ‘trying’ part. What Improv re-invigorates in us is the spirit of giving ourselves permission to get it wrong.

In fact, when learning improv, you start with lots of games and whenever someone messes up – we actually all cheer and celebrate.

It’s easy to spot this fear of failure in the workplace. It’s where you hold yourself back from stating your point in a meeting. Or where you get tongue tied when the CEO asks you a question. Or when you don’t put yourself forward for promotion. That fear of looking stupid or getting it wrong is a real innovation killer in business. So improv starts to create a new mindset – to put the value on trying and learning rather than worrying about being perfect or ‘right’.

Yes and…

This is the real catalyst to making improv viable. ‘Yes and’ means that whatever your team mate offers, you have to accept it (the ‘yes’ part) and build on it (the ‘and’ part). That means – even if you thought this scene was about a ship – if your scene partner speaks first and says you’re on a spaceship – then you’re on a spaceship. To accept that is not enough though – you then have to add a new piece of information about the spaceship situation so your scene partner can build on that.

‘Yes and’ hones the skills of being totally adaptable and relinquishing control. You can’t go in with your own fixed idea and try and shoehorn it in. You can’t control your team or force them to do what you want, nor should you want to – it’s a creativity killer!

How can we bring these principles into the office?

Well firstly, think about how often we hear ‘no, but…’ in meetings. Someone offers an idea and gets ‘no, butted’– ‘it’s too risky’, ‘we’ve done it before and it didn’t work’, ‘it’s too expensive’. However, imagine you change the dynamic to creating a space for people to ‘yes, and…’ each other’s ideas. It is my belief that when leaders and teams create ‘safe spaces’ for bouncing ideas – the creativity of a team is brought to life. I’ve seen this in a bank that creates ‘innovation jams’ for people around the business to just come together and help solve a problem. The FCA sandbox would be another example where, even in the regulatory industry, space to trial new things is possible!

Disney famously had 3 separate rooms for his teams to do their thinking! One of which was the ‘dream’ room where the team were only allowed to think up new ideas. The ultimate ‘yes and’ room!

Whilst you may not be able to create your own ‘yes and’ rooms – I think individually we can all decide to put a ‘yes and’ hat on in meetings. Hold the space for people to share their ideas and ‘yes and’ them to see where they might go.

For more information on how to bring Improv into your office or team, get in touch with Nicola (

By | November 29th, 2019|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Warren Buffett and the skill that will boost your career value by 50%

Warren Buffett and Public Speaking

When Warren Buffett spoke to a group of business students in 2009 he made them an offer: $100,000 for 10% of their future earnings. “If you’re interested, see me after class,” he said.

He then mentioned the most important skill that will boost their career values: public speaking. If students worked on this it would add 50% to their career value meaning he would offer them $150,000.

This reminded me of an investment manger I worked with. He was one of the smartest people in his team. His appetite for research and his knowledge of statistics were a formidable combination. The problem was, when it came to explaining this to clients, he lost his audience. They were left bemused by the dizzying statistics he would present to them. Sometimes they felt lost as he disappeared into a technical tangent.

It is not enough to be the smartest person in the room

“Teach me what I need to know then I can get this over with,” was just about the first thing he said to me. Now quite a few of our clients have a similar sentiment at first but no one had been so direct about it. Normally I would ask the person to consider where improved communications skills would help the person achieve their career goals. This case called for a more direct approach.

“I could do that,” I replied. “But if so, I hope you really enjoy your job because it is likely you will be doing it for the next 20 years.” I was a little taken aback at how blunt this sounded as I heard myself saying it. The thing is, this is something I feel really strongly about. We see lots of talented people get frustrated at not being promoted because they think being the smartest person in the room is what counts. If you cannot understand your clients and they cannot understand you, then smartness will not help.

I suggested the person go away and have a think about what he wanted to be doing in 10 years time. Then he should ask whether public speaking, communicating clients or pitching would be an important part of this. We would then meet up the following week and decide if it was worth us working together.

If I had know the story about Warren Buffett at the time I would certainly have mentioned it. Hearing the message about the importance of public speaking a communication skills from someone like Buffett is hard to ignore. As it happens the investment manager did come back. He did work on his skills and while this is still a work in progress it has made a huge difference to his career.

So it’s worth the effort but can I really get better at public speaking?

So if we accept that this is worth working on, the next challenge clients raise is whether they can actually get better at it. People think that it is something we are born with, or without.

Well, Buffett can help us there too. He admits then when he started out he was terrified of public speaking sometimes to the point of being physically sick. The impetus to get better at his came from the desire to woo his now wife Susan. It worked.

So the good news is that it is clear how you can increase your career value. But don’t expect to learn a few off-the-shelf techniques and be ready to go. It is something you will be learning and improving over many years. But if you commit to it, as Buffett shows the rewards can go well beyond the financial.


By | June 29th, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Pathos: The Missing Emotion in Theresa May’s speeches.

I got my prediction for last night’s election result badly wrong. My wife and I played a game where we guessed the size of the Conservative majority and my guess was in 3 figures. See what I know.

That said, it does not take hindsight to say the Conservative campaign was poor. Theresa May started as the party’s biggest asset. By the end, she was struggling.

Something missing in Theresa May’s speeches

Looking back at her speeches, today and throughout the campaign, there is a sense that something was missing. People have focused on her “cracking” voice in her acceptance speech in her constituency. Her voice wobbles during her interview with Andrew Neill were clear. But I think the problem was more fundamental.

When talking about persuasion or rhetoric it is not long before you get back to Aristotle. He set out LogosPathos and Ethos as three modes of persuasion. We often encourage clients to use a balance of these three based on the needs of the people you are trying to persuade.

What Aristotle can teach us about persuasion

To keep things simple, let’s think of LogosPathos and Ethos as being Logic, Emotion and Credibility. Looking through Theresa May’s speeches she champions Credibility at every opportunity: strong and stable leadership, safety, security and certainty are her favourite terms.

Logic is light. She tends not to spend a lot of time giving out reasoned arguments but at least it gets some air time.

Emotion is the area that is pretty much completely missing. At no point during her acceptance speech or on the steps of Downing Street does Theresa May acknowledge the disappointment of the night’s results. Whatever your political preferences it is clear it was an awful outcome compared to expectations for her and for her party. By not even mentioning her feelings about this, the speech can seem remote or out of touch.

Sometimes you really do need to show some emotion

Looking back through the campaign, Pathos or emotion was consistently missing. I am not suggesting this is the reason for the result last night. It could be one factor behind the Prime Minister’s falling approval ratings. It is hard to warm to someone who shows no emotion. What I am suggesting is that when people know you must be hurting, failure to acknowledge any emotion makes a speech sound false. This could be what destroys the credibility that has been the basis of so much of her campaign.

By | June 9th, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Answering questions when you have forgotten the answer: Corbyn, childcare and the missing figures

The first question I asked when listening to Jeremy Corbyn’s uncomfortable stumbling on Woman’s Hour when he had forgotten the answer on the cost of Labour’s childcare policy was, “Does it matter?” If the policy is a good one then perhaps it does not matter whether Jeremy Corbyn can produce the exact figures on demand. On the other hand, surely he knew that the media are trying to find any lapses from Labour on figures. This is especially true after the even more cringeworthy Diane Abbott interview.

Confirmation Bias

I suspect on this question it depends on your view of Jeremy Corbyn. His supporters will say Labour are getting unfair scrutiny, his opponents will question his competence.

How not to handle it when you have forgotten the answer

The more important point for me is how he handled the question. This provides an interesting insight into how to handle questions when we have forgotten the answer. Corbyn’s approach is to start to answer, fruitlessly check his notes and then pause. “I presume you have the figures?” asks Emma Barnett. “Yes I do,” he quickly fires back.

And so starts the bigger problem. Jeremy Corbyn now has to give a precise answer. This is where the incident becomes more relevant for an undecided voter. If Jeremy Corbyn says he can do something and then immediately fails to deliver then that starts to undermine his credibility.

How you can handle it when you have forgotten the answer

So what should he have done? And what can we do when we are asked something and have forgotten the answer? Being honest before returning to your key point is often a good tactic. Something like, “I do not have the exact figure but we have costed every policy in detail in our manifesto. This is something that the tories have not done…..etc.”. If he is feeling particularly feisty he could explain that the Labour manifesto has exact figure for [insert long list of policies] and that he is more concerned that everything is properly costed than trying to memorise every single figure. Not as good as confidently rattling off the figures but at least it is going to avoid being lead story on the BBC news website.

“The cover up is worse than the crime”

As is so often the case, the cover up (in this case of the fact he has forgotten the answer) is worse than not having the figures in the first place. It would take a hard heart not to have some sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn. We have all been put on the spot about something we have forgotten. How we deal with the situation makes all the difference about how your audience will remember it.

Donald Trump: Storytelling in 140 Characters

“Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world – a horrible mess!”

So says President Trump. Whatever you think about the personality or the policy, one thing is for certain: Donald Trump knows the art of storytelling.

Villain, Victim, Hero

One of the classic storytelling techniques we cover in our workshops is the Villain, Victim, Hero formula. It is so familiar to us that our brains expect it and respond to it. From bedtime stories as a child to Star Wars, the formula’s power is used again and again.

To summarise how it works:

Villain: this could be person, think Lex Luthor, or a “thing” such as the shark in Jaws or a volcano about to erupt.

Victim: the poor, innocent victim.

Hero: Superhero or ordinary person doing extraordinary things  (or both in the case of Superman/Clark Kent).

To make the story more dramatic, make the Villain more dastardly, the victim more worthy of our pity or the hero more compelling.

Donald Trump uses this formal in a relentlessly consistent and simple way:

Villain: the establishment, “crooked Hilary”, “the swamp” in Washington.

Victim: You! The honest, decent hard-working ordinary soul.

Hero: An outstandingly successful businessman with stellar talents and dealmaking prowess…….

Instead of varying the message, Donald Trump is a master at giving more impact to his storytelling by repeating and strengthening the formula. He makes his villains ever more villainous. The victims and their suffering, “the horrible mess” from the tweet above, is presented in colourful and dramatic ways. And of course, the more dangerous the villain and the more wronged the victim, the more impressive the hero is!

Using storytelling in your presentations

We may not want to emulate Donald Trump but we can certainly learn from how he tells stories. If you have to present data and facts in a way that will have your audience paying attention, try to think about:

  • Who is the Villain?
  • How bad is that Villain?
  • Who is suffering because of the Villain?
  • What is the impact on the Victim?
  • How can this be solved?
  • What are the qualities of your hero?

Next time you hear a speech from Donald Trump listen out for Villains and Victims. You will hear what an impact storytelling can have.

Martyn Barmby

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