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No joke: Lessons in collaboration from Second City

At DX3 in Toronto, the comedy troupe’s corporate division showed us how quick improv comedy hacks can help us communicate better in business.


Second City Works

About five minutes after I met Phil, we got started on composing our wedding vows.

It wasn’t one of those mass cult weddings. We just happened to be seated next to each other at DX3, a digital marketing, advertising and retail conference held in Toronto recently. The fake vows were part of an audience exercise led by presenter Sandy Marshall.

He’s the vice-president of Second City Works, a division of the Chicago-based Second City comedy troupe that helps clients like Discovery Communications and Major League Baseball with corporate videos, leadership and staff training. The idea that Second City — the place where Tina Fey, Martin Short and Stephen Colbert honed their comedic chops — has anything serious to say about stuff like corporate deal-making might seem a bit … well, funny.

But comedy has been exposing the absurdities of high-stakes corporate culture for ages, from David Spade’s gatekeeper receptionist on Saturday Night Live (“And you are? And this regarding?”) to Michael Scott, the pompous paper company boss portrayed on The Office by Second City grad Steve Carell.

With help from Second City performers Carly Heffernan and Alastair Forbes, Marshall showed me, my pseudo hubby Phil and the rest of the DX3 audience how some quick improv comedy hacks can help us communicate better in business.

“Listen with authenticity,” was Marshall’s first suggestion.

How hard is it to just listen to what your client, coworker or boss is saying? Pretty hard when you’ve got social media, emails, calls, texts, online videos and a backlog of Game of Thrones episodes beckoning you. Business operates in a real-time, 24/7 environment where multitasking puts a lot of demands on our attention spans.

Don’t assume technology helps us laser-focus on work discussions. When Intercall asked people what they really do during conference calls, 63 per cent said they send emails, 43 per cent check social media and 25 per cent play video games.

In improv, every performer has to listen carefully to all of their fellow performers for the entire time because — without a script to work from — they all rely on each other to develop the scene from scratch. If one actor isn’t paying attention, the whole skit falls apart.

Phil and I learned this while making up our fake wedding vows. Since we had to take turns each saying only one word at a time, we had to listen closely to one another in order to keep the joke going. So improv requires actively listening from start to finish.

In many fast-paced business settings, “we want to skip ahead so much and figure out how to get to the end more quickly,” said Forbes. If you tune out too quickly, however, you end up missing the other person’s point or make incorrect assumptions about what they really mean.

Marshall encouraged us to “love every idea, at least for a little while.”

As Fey described in her memoir Bossy Pants, improv actors must immediately embrace whatever idea an actor or audience member throws at them to keep the scene moving.

Marshall said people can mirror this in a business setting by adopting a “yes, and …” attitude during meetings. Responding to someone’s idea with variations on that phrase (even if you disagree) keeps your mind open to different possibilities, builds trust among team members and maintains a positive tone that encourages innovation.

“It takes away that competition and turns it into a true team collaboration,” he said.

All good tips to try out, whether you’re communicating with someone over UC&C or just one cubicle over from yours.

Image courtesy of Free Digital Photos

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