Improv as an Art and lessons for PR
23 Nov 2019
Improvisational theatre or comedy, better known as improv, has for long been a popular performance art form in the United States, and Europe. It is emerging as a much-sought after form in India too. The explosion of online video, and growing YouTube consumption, apart from proliferation of social media platforms are some factors that have contributed to its popularity. So much so that Indian cities regularly host improv shows; Bangalore for instance has already hosted an Improv Festival last year, with the second edition underway as you read (till Nov 24).
For many a millennial in India, the earliest exposure to improv came from the television show, ‘Whose Line is it Anyway’. Its cast of performers included the famed Drew Carey, Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles and Wayne Brady, who would create scenes, characters, games and situations on the spot, based on audience prompts. You remember the rip-roaring jokes and tears of laughter, but there are other lessons that improv and its performers offer.
You can take a leaf out of improv and use it in your life or work. If you are a public relations professional, you’d be particularly interested in these learnings:
Observe the participants in an improv group, and you will know they are all alert and paying attention. They take cues from a particular performer after listening and observing carefully and build their next line from the previous one. This is a vital skill in PR, because if you don’t pay attention to your client’s story or a particular trend, you are never going to tell a story. The devil is always in the detail, so pay close attention to every thread of a particular client conversation or input.
This is closely linked to the previous point. Imagine you are in an improv group, and one participant says pen, another says ink and the third one says paper. At this point, you are falling into a pattern and thinking this is going to be all about the world of writing but someone suddenly changes direction and says a word out of turn — the word after paper may be something like towel, and suddenly you can’t think about writing and think of words associated with towel. Being open to the ‘here and now’ is important. Planning way too far ahead may not always work for you. In PR situations; listen to what is being said now and be open to that idea rather than get into a conversation or client meeting with a preconceived notion.
Improvisation is all about thinking on your feet. Of course, this comes from practice. Spontaneity can also be a carefully cultivated trait, though it may sound paradoxical. Train yourself to have quick reflexes, and speak up. This doesn’t mean spouting meaningless lines; it just means learning to think and speak up quickly and make perfect sense! PR is a fast-paced world, and if you don’t deliver in quick time, someone else may walk away with the idea. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as author Gretchen Rubin, of ‘The Happiness Project’ often says in her blogs and talks.
Improv is enjoyable for participants and the audience when there is perfect collaboration among performers. The understanding among each other is what leads to a wonderful story, and sends the audience into raptures. So, cultivate the art of collaboration — offer ideas and pick up cues from others. A healthy exchange of ideas can help not just the team but you as well. Team work in improv means trusting each other, building on each other’s ideas, and believing in each other’s strengths. The same applies to PR — team work should bring out the best in every member.
Improv is all about the stories we tell. What holds an audience in thrall is how the many jokes, scenes, and situations you crafted come together to form a larger picture. A story that stays with the audience. In PR too, this is very important. You pick up an idea and show your target audience a picture they may not have been able to see on their own.
Public relations, is all about, effective communication. And if you are looking at improv theatre to get that right, you’ve begun well.