What Do Improv And Business Have In Common?

By: Cynthia Campbell, MBA, MEd, CUDE, Chief Operating Officer

I am a lifelong learner and I have embraced photography classes, yoga certifications, and human resource certifications in the last few years but when my partner, Troy, asked me to sign up for an improv class I froze inside. Just the sound of it made me uncomfortable.

As an accomplished public speaker, I am not afraid of the stage, it was something else that caused the fear. But what? The fear of the unknown is scary. Acting silly in front of others is scary. Looking stupid on a stage is terrifying. But I am not a fan of living a fear-based life or making fear-based decisions, so I signed up for a seven-week improv class. I mean why put your toe in when you can dive into the deep end?

What is improv?

Improv, short for improvisation, is a form of comedic theater in which the performers or players create spontaneous, unscripted material on the spot. Improv relies heavily on collaboration, creativity, and quick thinking. Performers respond to unexpected situations and make split-second decisions to keep the performance moving forward. Improv is used as a tool for training actors, comedians, and other performers, but it can also be used to grow interpersonal communication skills and improve confidence. It has been used in business settings as a professional development tool. Shows like SNL (Saturday Night Live) and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, have both popularized improv as a form of entertainment.

The improv class has taught me so much, not just about improv as a creative outlet but about myself and my ability to adapt, work on a team, solve problems, make decisions, and take risks. My resiliency was tested, and my emotional intelligence was exercised. It was a great time – I felt stretched and energized. #Growth

While improv and business may seem like entirely different domains, they have so much in common. Each week after class, I would think about the parallels between the two.

I want to share the similarities with you:

Accepting and building on the ideas of others

In improv, the concept of “Yes, and…” is fundamental. It means accepting what your scene partner offers and building upon it. It means being open with what you offer your scene partner too, trying to set them up for success. This principle can also be applied in business, where team members need to be open to new ideas and collaborate to expand upon them, fostering a supportive and innovative environment.


Both improv and business require participants to be adaptable and able to respond effectively to unexpected changes, new information, or novel situations. In improv, we must adapt to our partner’s actions and ideas on the spot. Sometimes the theme of the scene is challenging for me (not a fan of alien scenes, for example) but I still need to engage full-heartedly. In business, changes in market conditions, customer preferences, or competition may also demand rapid adjustments, you may not always like the changes you have to make but you stay fully engaged anyway.

Teamwork and collaboration

In improv, we work together to create scenes and stories without a script. The ideas come from the creative brains of the actors, and we work together (on the spot) to create a story arc that will cause laughter.

This is a good place to explain that improv and stand-up are very different from each other. In stand-up, one is alone on stage and laughs usually come at the expense of someone or something. The shock value of offensive comments and poking fun at vulnerabilities and insecurities seem to bring in the most laughs. If you have watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, you can recall several times Midge was horrified to learn her ex-husband, father, or mother heard her routine. Why? She was poking fun at them and her life with them. Ironically, comedy can hurt. Improv is nearly the opposite. It only works with the trust and collaboration of your scene partners. Improv is about setting up your partners for success and working with what they offer. It is about building a funny story together … not going rogue to steal a laugh for oneself.

In business, we collaborate on projects, brainstorm ideas, and strategize to achieve shared goals. Trust and collaboration are critical for business success. Together we create our brand story and live our mission. Individuals that run rogue on the team to steal the credit for themselves risk the entire project and the cohesiveness of the team.

Active listening

In improv, we must listen and watch our scene partners carefully to build on their ideas and maintain the flow of the scene. Active listening requires a full focus on the speaker, both verbally and nonverbally. We are seeking to understand and consider all input so that we can sync with our partners and try to see where they are taking the scene. #YesAnd In business, active listening helps foster effective communication. It requires us to pay attention, show interest, show empathy, ask questions, and summarize what we have heard. This helps build rapport and ensure that all team members are on the same page.

Creative problem-solving

In improv, we must think on our feet and come up with new ideas and solutions to unexpected challenges. Improv exercises may have you telling a story word by word with five other people or it may be an exercise that builds a story with plot holes on purpose, so they must be filled in creative ways. Similarly, in business, we must be able to think quickly and critically to develop innovative solutions to complex problems, and most of the time that means building the solutions with others. Improv is great practice for business problem-solving.


In improv, we take risks by stepping out of our comfort zones and embracing vulnerability on stage. It can be scary to feel so exposed, but it is when we are working outside the realm of comfortability that the magic happens. In business, we must take calculated risks when pursuing new opportunities, launching products, or entering new markets. Embracing risk can lead to growth both on the stage and in business.

Confidence and presence

In improv, we must exude confidence to engage the audience and convince them of the reality of the scene. This takes practice. The more you “play” the better your improv “game” will be. In business, confidence is essential in presentations, negotiations, and leadership to inspire trust and credibility. That also takes practice – the more you do it the easier it gets.

Emotional intelligence

In improv, we must be able to read the emotions of our scene partners and react appropriately. Are they presenting a curious character? An angry one? A fearful one? We must register this information within seconds and respond in kind. In business, understanding and managing emotions and “knowing oneself” can lead to better interpersonal relationships, more effective communication, and improved decision-making. #EQ


Both improv and business require quick thinking and the ability to process information rapidly. In improv, we must react and make decisions in real-time. In some games, you can even get eliminated for pausing. In business, we may face time-sensitive decisions or need to respond quickly to emerging opportunities or challenges. Decision anxiety is a problem that plagues many leaders, it is a fear-based response that can cripple a business. If you have this, please give improv a try. I love the way it forces me to decide quickly in each game we play. It feels like it is creating new neuropathways – I feel “stretched” mentally afterward while laughing the whole way through the lesson.


Finally, resilience is crucial in both improv and business. In improv, performers may not always “land a laugh” and in business, we do not always land the deal. Resilience is key to a happy life, and nothing can help you practice resilience faster than failing on an improv stage and quickly getting over yourself and trying again. Fail fast. Fail forward. Move on.

I highly recommend you consider the idea of improv training.

The other adult learners in my seven-week course at the Jackalope Theater in Tulsa, OK had a variety of reasons for being there that included becoming a better role player in Dungeons and Dragons, becoming a better storyteller, improving interpersonal communication, and increasing confidence in business meetings and presentations. To be honest, I did not know it at the time but, I needed to learn how to play again. To really play. To abandon ego and be silly. To laugh at myself and to accept others laughing at me too! If you would like to talk more about the experience and its parallels to business, please reach out, if you can’t tell, I am “geeking” out over what I am learning and I love sharing my passions. I think the credit union space could benefit from improv training; it could balance out the excitement of annual required BSA training. LOL

I signed up for the improv class because it scared me, and I like to root out fear in my life. I learned that the fear of looking silly and feeling dumb is not that big of a deal. I learned that I love playing! Improv has taught me that adults can learn through play, just like our kids do, we just do not schedule “play” into our day anymore. Perhaps that is a misstep.

When was the last time you played?


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