Friday, July 06, 2007

10 Principles of Improv and why you should care

I've been meaning to get to two posts for months now: A post about Toastmasters (the toast post) and a post about taking improv classes in Philly. Well, this is a (slightly modified) version of a Toastmasters speech I recently gave about my experience with improv. Two birds, and all that :-)

A few months ago I started taking Improv classes in Philadelphia on Monday nights. I signed up for improv not because I have a burning desire to be the next Will Ferrell or Mike Myers, nor any illusions that you’ll soon be seeing me on the big screen or on SNL. What inspired me to sign up for class was a small, remarkable book called Truth in Comedy, written by Charna Halpern, Kim Johnson, and Del Close (one of the most important influences in modern day comedy improv. Just look at the list of folks he mentored!)

The more I read about improv, the more I realized that the principles of good improv are also the principles of living a good, centered, happy, connected, and fulfilled life. So today I’d like to take a few minutes to share 10 improv principles with you, and tell you a little bit about my experience of the past eighteen weeks learning to doing improv.

First I think it’s useful to briefly address the question, "What is Improv?" Inevitably when I tell someone I’m learning to do improv, they say something like, "Oh standup comedy, I could see you doing that." So let’s clear this up right away: Improv is not stand up comedy. In many ways it is the antithesis of stand up. Stand up is generally written, memorized, practiced and polished. It's also (usually) a solitary activity. Improv is spontaneous, free-flowing and created on the spot. It's also (usually) a team sport.

Often it's the unscripted nature of improv that is most associated with the form, and for that reason many people say things like, "You’re doing improv—isn’t that hard? Isn’t that scary to work without a script? To have to make it up on the spot?" To which I can only reply with a scratch of my chin, "Hmmm… Having to make it all up on the spot… That sounds familiar. Where have I heard that before??? Oh yeah!!… it’s what we do every single day of our lives!"
Look, not only can anyone do improv, we are in fact, all of us, doing improv all the time.

Let me ask you: When you were born, were you handed a script that layed out all of your lines so you'd know just the right thing to say and do for the rest of your life? I don't think you got that script. I don't know anyone who got that script. I know I didn’t get that script. So we’re doing improv all the time. All the time. Every day. You. Me. Them. We're improv-ing baby!

And you may have noticed that IN our unscripted lives, sometimes, 'stuff' happens. And learning and practicing the principles of improv can help us deal with that stuff.


Principle 1: Be prepared (Warm up!)
In my improv class we don’t rehearse scenes, but we do practice. We do train to learn and internalize certain structures and methods the way jazz improvisers learn scales. Before getting into scene work, we activate our minds and bodies by playing games; games that will help ground us physically and emotionally to characters we create in scenes. Sometimes we play 2 or 3 games at once to help sharpen our awareness and listening skills and get us out of our heads. Props to the Boy Scouts on this one.

Principle 2: Willingness
Willingness to do what you ask? A lot. We have to be willing to fail, and fail spectacularly. Since we don’t know what’s coming next, we have to accept that we may get knocked off balance. Therefore we have to be willing to mess up –and mess up big time.

Being willing to fail spectacularly means being willing to take risks. Lack of success is not due to trying and failing; it’s due to not trying, often out of a fear of failure. Being willing to fail means being willing to look foolish. It’s been said that we wouldn’t care so much about what people thought about us if we realized how seldom they do. If we’re not willing to look foolish doing improv then we won’t risk, we won’t commit, and the scenes will lack energy and direction. Being willing to risk reconnects us with the zest and energy of life. When we risk, our senses our heightened, our adrenaline is flowing. It’s a rush.

Finally, we have to be willing to make mistakes. The point is not that there are no consequences. Rather, it’s accepting that if we are truly risking there is no question that we WILL make mistakes. But we also realize that others are there to help dig us out of our mistakes. And ultimately it’s our mistakes that lead us to growth and improvement. We learn to choose better next time.

Principle 3: Stay in the Moment
In improv what is happening NOW is the key to discovery. I was at a Library Futures conference recently and heard someone say, "I’m very interested in the future because that’s where most of my life will happen." That got a big laugh. Well I’m very interested in this moment, because that’s where ALL of my life has happened. And I’m pretty sure that’s where most of the action is. (Coincidentally, it was at the library futures conference that Mary Catherine Bateson suggested that the best way to prepare for the future is to take an improv class...)

Principle 4: Shut up and Listen
Good improvisers are not necessarily more clever, or more quick-witted. They just listen better… Improv is about hearing what others are offering, and building off it. It’s hard to do that when your gums are flappin’.

Principle 5. Action beats inaction
Don’t talk about doing it, do it. Be specific. In Improv there is a "bias for action". I’ve also seen the term "bias for action" listed as a common trait of effective leaders. Why? Because active choices move things forward. The more specific the choice the better. Specific choices are committed choices. Specific choices move things forward and allow others to respond to and build off of your offers.

Principle 6. Be honest
In improv we are taught to express whatever is coming up in us at that moment. To do that we have to learn not to censor or judge our own thoughts, which requires some major rewiring of the brain… The only value we bring to the scene is our honest response to what’s happening.

Principle 7: Let go of (your need to) control
The only thing we can control are our own choices. Realizing that we are not in control of anything else is the key to de-stressing and getting into the flow. And the flow is where we are creative. The flow is where we are productive. The flow is where we are connected to others. The flow is where we are happy. [an aside] Interestingly… What happens when we stop focusing energy on things that we can’t control? That energy gets focused on things that we can control, and ironically, we end up exerting more influence.

Principle 8. There are no mistakes
Earlier I said that we have to be willing to make mistakes. But moving beyond that, we learn to not see choices as mistakes. In improv, there are no mistakes or bad ideas, there are only interesting choices. We respect all the choices (aka offers) made by others, and find ways to build off of them, no matter how challenging they may be. There are no mistakes because everything can be built upon. Everything that happens is an opportunity.

Principle 9: Trust
Learning improv we learn to trust ourselves. We trust our impulses and our choices (which we can do because there are no mistakes, and we are not alone.) And we learn to trust in others (to "justify" our "interesting choices", build off them, and weave them into the fabric of the scene.) When learning to trust our ideas, it helps to remember that ideas are infinite. So no matter what strange hole it seems we’ve dug ourselves into in a scene, there are an infinite number of ideas that can help dig us out.

Principle 10. Teamwork (row, row, row)
We’re all in this together. No one person is responsible for the success or failure of a scene. It succeeds, or not, based on our ability to work together. This requires strong individuals making strong choices, who trust each other and themselves. As a group, we learn to focus on solutions. As individuals we learn to focus on getting results (i.e. moving the scene forward) instead of being right, or angling for attention or credit. We rise, or fall, as one.

The Uber Principle: "Yes, and..."
So there are the big 10 principles of improv as seen by an improv newbie. But I’d like to conclude by mentioning one final improv principle. It’s a principle that runs through all the others and infuses improv with it’s spirit. This is the principle of "Yes, and". "Yes, and" means that we accept everything that happens as an offer, as a gift. It is our job to bring our unique perspective to bear, and build off of whatever is given to us. "Yes and" implies acceptance, but not acquiescence. "Yes and" acknowledges the reality of the moment, but also inspires us to create the future.

In the end, "Yes and" is a powerful attitude of affirmation. It is an attitude that affirms ourselves, and therefore gives courage. It is an attitude that affirms others, and therefore inspires trust. And it is an attitude that affirms what is and therefore inspires hope and excitement for the possibilities of what may be as we join together to create our shared future.

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At July 06, 2007 7:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oddly, I woke up this morning with two "lists of ten" on my mind, and one was very close to this -- how the principles of writing workshops have helped me overall. This is a great post about a creative approach to lifelong learning.

At July 06, 2007 1:20 PM, Blogger Tyler Rousseau said...

"Zen and the Art of Improve" by Pete Bromberg.

I tell you what, now there is a title, content and author that would reel them in!

At July 07, 2007 7:59 AM, Blogger Nancy Dowd said...

Yes and ... what a great post! I'd love to hear more about those exercises. Sometimes I have been part of teams where the elements of improv you describe just flow and are so natural. I just thought it was the nature of the people "clicking" but now I see the light...

At July 09, 2007 2:12 PM, Blogger cwood said...

Kudos for attending the class! The resident reference librarian at WDFPL left for Alaska this weekend on a trip of “firsts,” in her own words. It’s really cool that you both are taking advantage of new and different opportunities.

Getting back to improv …it comes in many forms. A few weeks ago I was visiting a local Barnes & Noble store. I like to do this from time to time to schmooze with customers and promote library use. Ok, I am also spying on the competition on some strange business/marketing level.

On this particular trip I slipped into the last row of audience chairs for a program entitled “The Art of Comedy: Getting Serious about Being Funny,” with Paul Ryan. I listened to tips from the master and sat through some audience improvisation and scripted bits from hopefuls in attendance. Shortly before Paul Ryan’s publicist rose to promote the book signing following presentation, Paul singled me out of the audience, “You have a lot of books on your lap. You must like to read.” I couldn’t resist the opportunity and retorted, “Actually I am here to exchange all these books.” (Laughter ensued) Paul asked, “What do you do?” “I’m a librarian.” (More Laughter). Needless to say he and the audience laughed and learned more than expected about visiting local libraries in person and online throughout the book signing. I don’t know about the use of props in improv. In my example, the duplicate titles came in handy.

FYI – Paul’s book, The Art of Comedy is available to check out at the West Deptford Free Public Library! He also recommends checking out Helium, a Philadelphia comedy club, for more fun.

At July 14, 2007 10:18 AM, Blogger Amy J. Kearns, MLIS said...

I am blown away by this brilliant post and can see how all of these things could really improve my life personally and professionally. Thanks for this post! :-)

At September 10, 2007 9:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey librarians,
I was just searching around for people talking about improv in Philly and stumbled onto this thread. If you're interested in improv, you should check out

There's a lot of improv going on in Philly, especially as I write this (during the Fringe Festival). There's also a big Philly Improv Festival in November;

Just spreading the word,

At October 25, 2007 12:05 AM, Blogger John said...

Wow, great post! I am a Toastmaster too and just started an improv course. I am capturing each week on my website:


At May 12, 2008 11:02 AM, Blogger Uri's Brain said...


As you note in your very inspiring post, improv gives us a tool to interprept others and in the process reinvent ourselves. Any technique that celebrates "constructive failure" is okay by me.


At April 30, 2009 12:17 PM, Blogger PriscillaHowe said...

Excellent post! As a storyteller/puppeteer, I mix improv into my work. I find that it has gotten easier the more I let go. When I teach puppetry, I encourage workshop participants to say "Yes, and..."

I'm also a former librarian--reading this list, I see that the best reference librarians follow the principles of improv.

At August 18, 2010 6:48 AM, Anonymous Kami Mulzet said...

Wonderful post! I've taught improv to middle school kids for years. These principles are so important for that age group!

You might enjoy this video, Randy Nelson from Pixar explains how they use these principles at work ( Also, Daniel Pink's book, A Whole New Mind, explains how right brain functions will be in demand in the future workplace. Improv is lots of fun, and the skills are very important for all of us.

Thanks again for the terrific post!

At March 20, 2011 1:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG! This was one of the best accounts for improv I have seen in quite awhile! Well done! I can't tell you the number of times I have talked to people about Improv, and they say, "What's that?" :)


At March 23, 2011 9:49 AM, Blogger Peter Bromberg said...

Thanks :-)

At October 24, 2011 6:57 PM, Blogger Katie Scott Scrapbooking said...

Awesome list! I also took an improv class recently and love the way the principles of improv can be applied to life.


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