Principles of improvisation

Applied principles of improvisation will improve your organization’s performance and effectiveness.

Principles of improv 


Preparation for improv consists of warmup exercises intended to create the appropriate mindset. We want to shed any stress or anxiety from the day, stretch our bodies to help relax, and warmup our minds and intuition to foster the free-flowing spontaneity and stream of consciousness essential for improv.


Once warmup is completed, the first critical component of improv is to connect with your partner. This is done with eye contact and an opening of the heart. It requires a level of focus and is critical to create clear communications with your partner.


Listening to your partner is critical, since there is no script to rely upon. However, deep listening is even better, i.e., the act of listening to, and sensing, the sentiments BENEATH the words rather than merely the words. This deep listening would more accurately extract what your partner is really saying, especially when their words may not exactly match their true feelings. How often have we said, “I heard what they said, but I don’t believe it”? This deep listening will give us a higher likelihood that we hear the true sentiment.


Accept your partner’s “offer” or claim, i.e., never deny or invalidate their statements. E.g., if your partner says, “Why are you so anxious?”, you must not deny their offer but instead accept it as true, i.e., accept and agree that you are anxious. This is essentially the YES part of the traditional YES, AND.

Be affected

Since you have established a connection to your partner, be affected by their offer. This demonstrates your respect and support of them.

Yes, and

Build upon their offer. In the YES example above, do not merely say, “Yes, I’m anxious”, as that offers nothing back to your partner. Instead, accept and add (YES, AND) with something like, “Yes, I’m anxious because this is the first day I have to feed the lions at the zoo”. You are now offering something upon which they can accept and build.


It is imperative to speak authentically and honestly. Your partner (and any audience) will sense if your words do not match your underlying truth. That will create confusion, and your partner will now have the difficult task of finding some pathway to a truthful dialogue.


It is important to be in a state of flow rather than control. One must drop prior agendas and instead must flow, adapt and trust the direction of the dialogue. That state of flow generally comes from feeling versus thinking, and it is more spontaneous and intuitive. Some think of it as “no mind”.


In the early offerings of each partner, it is important to establish the context, i.e., who are we in this relationship, where are we in this setting, and what are we doing. This basic context will help each partner to more easily build various scenarios within the scene.


In general, one should offer statements not questions. Asking questions does not offer anything to your partner but instead places all the onus on them to establish something in the scene. E.g., rather than saying, “How are you?”, instead offer something and say, “Why do you look so stressed?”. Your partner would then accept your offer and flow in that direction.

No mistakes

In improv, there are no mistakes, only invitations, opportunities and happy accidents. Tina Fey states in Bossypants, “THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities”. Miles Davis states, ”Do not fear mistakes. There are none”. The essence of these comments is that “mistakes” may bring us to a better place, a place upon which we would have never conceived. There are many documented inventions created by “mistakes”, hence opportunities.

Staying centered

Silence during an improv is ok as long as the connection between the partners is maintained. That “space” may be dramatic or comedic and may be an important “activity” to highlight the situation. One must therefore stay centered and learn how to be ok with silence, if appropriate, and not speak for the sake of filling the space.

Make your partner great

An important focus of improv is to stay connected to your partner and serve them with your offerings. In essence, make your partner great. It is not about you, but about your partner. The more you give your partner, the better the scene will be. If you make your partner great, the scene (and you) will be great. This fosters collaboration, teamwork, and service to the whole.

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