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From Improv to Improve: How Comedy Improvisation Can Help Your Association Career

From Improv to Improve: How Comedy Improvisation Can Help Your Association Career

By Valerie Good-Turney

One of the reasons I first moved to Chicago was to continue studying improvisational comedy (also known as improv). Having taken classes at The Second City and the iO Theater and performing in countless shows for families, late-night crowds, and everyone in between for more than 11 years, there are many lessons I have learned that become engrained in you as an improviser. These lessons are key to helping you (and your team) be successful on stage. But success isn鈥檛 only about making people laugh鈥攊t鈥檚 also about creating real, authentic moments that you, your fellow performers, and your audience share in. Moments that, by the very nature of improv, can鈥檛 be recreated.  

Having worked in the association industry for almost 4 years, I have learned several lessons from improv that can be connected to the work we do in the association industry.

Focus on Others, Not Yourself

Association work, just like improv, is a team sport. If you are solely focused on yourself and your own achievements, you will find that the overall work suffers (whether that is a project for your association or the show in which you are performing). If you watch an improv show and see people who are always vying for the spotlight, making a scene just about what they are doing, or striving to get a laugh each time, they are likely in it more for themselves than the whole team, which causes the team鈥檚 scene to suffer. Great improvisers focus on making their teammates look good and creating a seamless environment in which everyone is included and feels like their contributions are valuable and wanted. This allows for a multitude of innovative ideas to be introduced to the scene and built upon; these ideas are usually the most creative and engaging, resonating well with the audience.

The same holds true with association work. No matter what kind of team you have, it鈥檚 crucial for each player鈥攚hether they鈥檙e from Operations, Marketing, Sales, Finance, Member Services, or any other area of the organization鈥攖o not only bring their best ideas to the table but to also create an environment in which they welcome other team members鈥 ideas and feedback on how to make the association and its various processes the best they can be! By doing that, everyone shines.

Yes, and鈥

If you鈥檝e heard anything about improv basics, you鈥檝e probably heard of the concept of 鈥淵es, and....鈥 It boils down to acceptance and building on one another鈥檚 choices. For example, if during a scene you say, 鈥淲e鈥檙e going to be late to the party,鈥 my job as your scene partner is to accept your contribution to the scene (the 鈥測es鈥) and add to it (the 鈥渁nd鈥). So, I would respond with, 鈥淵es, I鈥檓 sorry I forgot to pick up the dessert, okay?鈥 The goal is to work together to build the scene. If I denied your contribution and said something like, 鈥淲e鈥檙e not going to a party. We鈥檙e cowboys in the 1800s,鈥 you would probably feel very uncomfortable, the audience would feel uncomfortable, it leaves us in an unproductive space, and the energy and momentum would come to a grinding halt.

It鈥檚 the same with association work. All sorts of ideas make their way to your desk. From your internal team to your board, volunteers, and consultants, everyone brings ideas to the table. But with looming deadlines and limited budgets, it鈥檚 easy to brush some of those off with a 鈥淣o, there鈥檚 no way鈥 or a 鈥淲e鈥檝e been there and tried that鈥 mentality. Yet, shutting down ideas in that way can have a lasting impact not only on the people who suggest them but also on the association at large. Your internal team or board may think twice about sharing ideas in the future, and your association could miss out on something great.

The concept of 鈥淵es, and...鈥 doesn鈥檛 necessarily mean you have to implement every idea, but you should consider 鈥渂uilding the scene鈥 with your association partner. Asking follow-up questions about how their idea might work, sharing it during a team brainstorming session, and most importantly, thanking them for their contribution are easy ways to not immediately say 鈥渘o鈥 to an idea while not committing to a full-on 鈥測es.鈥 By doing this, you create an environment in which your staff and volunteers feel valued, heard, supported, and engaged, because they can share ideas without being shut down.

Make Confident Choices

Let鈥檚 say you鈥檙e watching a scene during which the performer says, 鈥淚鈥檓 sick of being a pilot,鈥 but it鈥檚 followed by dead air (i.e., no laughter). The performer tries again, saying, 鈥淛ust kidding, I鈥檓 not a pilot, I鈥檓 a surfer.鈥 Again, the audience doesn鈥檛 respond. So, the performer tries to engage the audience by stating, 鈥淎ctually, I鈥檓 a dad on my way to a PTA meeting.鈥

By this time, the audience has started to lose faith in the performer鈥檚 ability to trust his choices. There鈥檚 nothing wrong with starting out a scene with the first pilot line, but the performer needed to trust that his team members could build on that choice, even when there is dead air. Being confident in the choices we make, big or small, is necessary for giving a scene a strong foundation.

In the association world, we also need to be confident in our choices. That doesn鈥檛 mean we can鈥檛 be flexible or have multiple options available to help solve a problem. But, we should feel empowered to make decisions. As an early-career professional, that has been a hard-learned truth that I would pass on to the next generation in the association field. Everyone brings a unique skillset and knowledge base to their position, regardless of background. It鈥檚 important to ask for feedback and input, but also be willing to put forth your own suggestions on how to implement a plan or tackle an obstacle. The timing might not be right to implement your idea, but keep trying and be confident. Trust in yourself and your ideas. You are capable and your contributions are valuable! And your 鈥渁udience鈥 will appreciate having someone that always has an idea ready.

And . . .  Scene!

Improv is something that everyone can do (I mean, you improvise every day when you live your life, right?). We face surprises on a daily basis, and improv helps you respond to the unexpected with poise, confidence, and sometimes a little bit of humor. By providing the opportunity to build up your peers, work as a team, make deliberate choices, and face the unexpected, improv provides plenty of tools to help you in your role as an association professional.

If you鈥檙e interested in trying it out 鈥渇or real鈥, you can look into classes for individuals or workshops that will work in the corporate environment. It鈥檚 a fun way to create, express yourself, and connect with other people!

Valerie Good-Turney is an Operations Specialist for the American Academy of Home Care Medicine.

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