Improv at Work

Improv at Work

I really can’t stand team-building exercises. I always feel like it’s forced fun. And I’ve been through so many team activities from pasta making to ax throwing to go-kart racing; I feel like I have done it all. Are our teams any closer because of them? I have no idea. So when I heard we were going to do a virtual team meeting with another team-building exercise, I was thinking, “Here we go again.” And when I was told I was going to lead it, my appropriate response should have been, “Come again?” Instead, it was “Absolutely – I love team activities. Of course, I’ll do it.” Yeah – I’m a hypocrite. And so are you, so get over it.

Two weeks ago, I ran our team activity. 90 minutes of improv and it was pretty spectacular. Do I think the team is closer because of it? I have no idea, but I do believe we all had a good laugh and with any hope, learned something in the process. Below is the activity I ran and of course, I had a PowerPoint to go with it. Because Powerpoint = Fun.

In preparation for the exercise, I had everyone do the following:

  1. Watch any improv (I suggested Middleditch & Schwartz on Netflix)
  2. Watch this video about improv from Big Think
  3. Create one slide that is the ‘un-me’ of you and send it before Day 1 to the moderator. The slide should contain pictures, words, anything that helps to describe the opposite of you – the ‘un-me.’ The last point here, you have to give your un-me a name.

Powerpoint Presentation – with Speaker notes added

Slide 1: Styles of Humor

4 Styles of Humor (According to Psychology Today) – in order of appropriateness at work
  1. Affiliative – This involves telling jokes about things that everyone might find funny. The goal is to use humor to bring people together to find humor in everyday life.
  2. Self-Enhancing – This is being able to laugh at yourself, such as making a joke when something bad has happened to you. Trying to find the humor in everyday situations, and making yourself the target of the humor in a good-natured way.
  3. Aggressive – This involves put-downs or insults targeted toward individuals. When it is intended to threaten or psychologically harm others, it is the type of humor used by bullies. 
  4. Self-Defeating – Putting yourself down in an aggressive or “poor me” fashion is called self-defeating humor.

Intent of Slide: Talk about Humor as it pertains to work. Understanding types of humor will help prevent the wrong use of humor in the Improv exercise to follow.

Slide 2: Benefits of Humor at Work (Partial List)

  1. Increases employee engagement
  2. Decreases employee turnover
  3. Increases employee job satisfaction
  4. Increases employee productivity
  5. Prevents employee burnout
  6. Reduces absenteeism
  7. Increases company loyalty
  8. Improves morale  
  9. Creates a more positive work culture
  10. Increases profit

Intent of Slide: To discuss the value of humor. This slide should be used to see if people agree. Here’s the resource list for those folks that don’t buy it.

Slide 3: Dangers of Humor in the Workplace

  1. Distraction – Humor can be inappropriate if it distracts from the intended goal. Stress is real and sometimes distractions are necessary – however, like everything, humor should be used in moderation.
  2. Division – Humor can be used to unite folks. However, those that embrace humor and those that don’t could be a source of clear division. Be careful.
  3. Disparagement – Humor can be downright mean. I think of people that say incredibly mean things on slack and then add an “LOL” to the end. That does not make it ok. Nor is it ok to say something mean and then follow it with a “Just Kidding.” Humor should not be aimed at anyone – we aren’t in the sandbox.

Intent of Slide: To discuss that humor can go too far and that there are limits and risks. Here’s a full article on the above items.

Slide 4: What is Improv?

  1. Short Form vs Long Form – There are two main types of Improv. Short Form is a small story and can be 2-5 minutes. Think of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Long-form is usually 15 – 90 minutes and is usually one story layered on top of itself. “Middleditch & Schwartz” is a great example of this.
  2. ‘Yes And’ – This is a principle of improv. Translated another way, you can’t reject the information you are given. You have to take what you are given and build it; grow it; react to it – whatever. But you can’t reject it. It will force you to really focus on listening – which we all could use some work on.
  3. Gifting – This is another principle of Improv. This is the idea that you are in a partnership with your Improv team and your goal is to set them up for success.
  4. It Doesn’t Need to be Funny – This isn’t really a rule but I think there some people that don’t think they are funny and so they don’t try improv. By the way, those folks are usually the best at Improv.
  5. Keep it Simple – This is the idea that you want to be wary of introducing too much into your Improv. Keep it simple.
  6. Beware of Turns – There are times when someone introduces a complete shift in direction. These can be absolutely hilarious but everyone needs to pay attention.
  7. Give each other a name – This is a rule we have in my improv class. Having a name gives people something to build from. Not a hard-and-fast rule here, but it’s a good one.

Improv Exercises

Here’s the section where we actually did the improv over zoom. Here’s a list of what we did and seemed to work. I would always ask for volunteers whenever possible.

  1. Improv Warm-ups – I asked everyone to turn off their microphones and their cameras and just stretch. One minute of stretching – if we had more time, I would have had more stretching. However, we had one rule – no checking email, no slack – only stretching.
  2. One Word Sentence – We started with “One Word Sentence”, which has every person in the improv group introduce a word to form a sentence. The sentences continue until there is an end to the story. The beginning starts with “Once upon a time..” and ends with “The moral of the story is…” I asked for four volunteers for this exercise, assigned the order, and joined in as the 5th person. It went in order 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and then back to 1 until the story was complete.
  3. Debate with One Word Sentence – This is the same sentence format but in a debate format. One team of 3 is the ‘Pro’ team and one team of 3 is the ‘Con’ team. I asked for volunteers, set the order for each team, and then solicited topics for debate. The group selected “The Royals should have greater authority” and we began. I was the moderator and asked each team to introduce themselves and then we were off on the debate. It was pretty fantastic.
  4. Un-Me – To break up the day, we went to people’s Un-Me slides and had everyone guess. It worked really well as it’s fascinating to see how people see themselves and doing an “Un-Me” disarmed folks and loosened everyone up.

After running this session, I asked for feedback. The element that stood out was the “gifting” side of Improv. There is a lot to learn from Improv but that bit offered a key take-away for everyone.

Resources and References

Humor that Works by Andrew Tarvin

Improv at work

Supporting Music

Soundgarden – Fell on Black Days (I miss Kevin and Bean)

Weezer – Hash Pipe (The kings of Nerd Rock!)

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