Improvisation for Business

This blog post is inspired by the book Training to Imagine by Kat Koppett (Koppett, 2013). It offers insights into training with improv in a corporate environment.


Life - believe it or not - is improvised. - Dave Morris

Corporate or any real-life setting requires improvisation to some degree. So we can get better, by applying the principles of Improv. The five basics described in Training to Imagine are:

  • Trust
  • Spontaneity
  • Accepting Offers (Yes and)
  • Listening and Awareness
  • Storytelling


We know that building trust is the foundation of teams working together. But in corporate settings, this is often not acknowledged and it can feel hard to establish trust. According to Koppett trust can be described by a formula: trust=credibility×intimacyrisk\text{trust}=\frac{\text{credibility}\times\text{intimacy}}{\text{risk}}.

Credibility can be increased by clearly framing intentions and practicing what one preaches. In many situations - especially business situations - we are too egocentric to understand how the other person works internally (also called the The Fundamental Attribution Error). To break this mindest we should follow the principle “Treat other how they want to be treated” instead of “Treat other how you want to be treated.

To get more “intimate” with our colleagues, we need to get a better understanding of who they are as a person. Everyone has experienced the task of introducing oneself to new coworkers. It often feels cringy or we feel thrown in at the deep end. To improve this experience and to get to know each other better, we (as facilitators) can use games taken from the improv context. I want to introduce two here. This book showcases an intro based on our name. By telling the group about their name’s heritage, any nicknames or funny stories attached to it will unblock barriers and help others understand us better. We often get inspired by others here and automatically follow the improv principle of “Yes, and” by adding to what has already been said.

The second game I personally like and had great success with is called Face Draw. It offers the opportunity to challenge our own creativity while providing a low-risk way to get to know our teammates. The team will fail together and we have portraits of the participants for further use.


Spontaneity lays the foundation for doing creative work together. Following simple “rules” helps to increase spontaneity in groups.

Rules for more spontaneity?

  • Do not censor. by
    • Being foolish.
    • Being obvious, instead of trying to come up with interesting or creative ideas.
  • Warm people up. Just like with running, spontaneity needs a warm-up to work at its full potential.
  • Reiterate the rules of brainstorming.
    1. Defer judgment by separating idea-generating from idea evaluation
    2. Encourage wild ideas
    3. Build on the ideas of others
    4. Stay focused on the topic
    5. One conversation at a time
    6. Be visual
    7. Go for quantity (IDEOU)
  • Provide escape hatches. Ask What If and What would [Person] do? Or maybe just pretend to be a child? (Zabelina and Robinson, 2010)
  • Reward honesty.
  • Recognize you are wrong and celebrate your failures. Change your mind to be inspired by new things and build upon them.

Accepting Offers

An offer in Improvisation is any dialog or action which advances the scene. By accepting an offer, we can continue the story. The underlying principle here is called Yes, and, meaning accepting and building upon the ideas of other people. It does not mean literally saying “Yes, and” instead it means generally accepting the offer. (Example: In a staged fight you would not give in immediately) A series of Yes will get us somewhere while a series of nos, will not even get us started.

The issue is that too often we automatically react by unconsciously rejecting most of what someone (who might have an opposed opinion) says. The keyword for this is but.

But is a verbal eraser, that negates everything you said before. - James Williams

Listening and Awareness

Listening is the willingness to change.

But we spend most of our time listening just enough to respond. Before any offer can be accepted it has to be recognized. Therefore we need to listen closely and be able to read between the lines. Reading between the lines means looking for the disconnect between what is being said and what is expressed nonverbally. There are three different types of information one can (and probably should) listen for:

  • Facts
  • Feelings
  • Intention

If we listen for these three and understand them, we are in a zone of being in the moment. This is easier said than done, but we can train our listening skills with simply tasks:

  • Closing your eyes and quiz yourself on details of the room you are in
  • Imitate people on TV
  • Watch strangers and invent stories about them.
  • Mimicking your behavior on routine tasks without having the tools
  • Listen to conversations of strangers
  • If someone tells you a story feed it back to them

Since school, we learned that there are at least 2 parts to a conversation. So what if we could magically help others understand us more clearly. If we look at professional improvisers and listen to what they actually say, we are surprised to find that they often articulate their intentions, feelings, or desires blatantly.

If it is not yet obvious, why we should listen to others. It has been shown that the best way to be creative is to receive information. - (Hall, 2007)


Stories engage us very deeply. They do not only trigger our emotions but get us associating and activate memories. But they are not opposed to showing data or facts but more a tool to engage people. In books, you learn how to have a good story for a specific thing, improve help us refine our storytelling skills.

We can improve our storytelling skills in a 7 step program.

1. Pay Attention

as described in the section above it improves our understanding of what’s happening.

2. Make Connection

A Story without Connection is just a list of events. Make sure you follow through on promises (foreshadowing).

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there. Anton Chekhov

3. Find the Game

The Game in Improv means a repetitive pattern. We, humans, love patterns. In a business context, this can either be a metaphor or a format (Fuckup Nights, PetchaKutcha, …)

4. Structure Events

By following an established story structure like the Heros Journey or the Story Spine.

Story Spine

The Story Spine a simple structure that will help us tell compelling stories easier. We start off with an introduction, establishing the basic information (who, were, when), the routine of the hero (what), their break out from this routine to tell the story based on this change and the obstacles they have to overcome. It climaxes once we get to the moment of truth and in a conclusion look at the consequences of this adventure. It can be even simpler if we use the following template sentences.

  • Once upon a time…
  • And every day…
  • Until one day…
  • And because of this…
  • And because of this… (X-times)
  • Until finally…
  • And ever since that day…

We do not have to use these exact words but follow their meaning to build our stories.

5. Include Vivid Description

The right amount of details make stories more compelling and enhances the actions.

6. Be flexible

There is nothing worse than sticking to your predefined story, instead build on other people or circumstances.

7. Build your library of stories

By gathering stories you have a basis to build upon.

Performing with presence

As we learned before, communication depends on verbal and nonverbal clues. Nonverbal clues are often produced by our bodies. The body is always in the present, while the mind floats around. It is easier to change your body than your mind. So going for a walk, when we feel stuck can actually help us. In preparation for talks or presentations, we tend to focus more on what to say instead of how to say it.


Status is the power dynamic that fuels all our interactions, a position or rank in relation to others. It is not something we are, but something we do. With improvisation training our perception of status is improved, and we are more receptive to status in situations of daily life. Traits of high-status persons are:

  • Talking more and interrupting others
  • Standing Erect and keeping long eye-contact
  • Moving and talking fluidly (without fill-words like ähh, uhm)


Doug Hall. Jump start your brain 2.0 : everything you need to think smarter and more creatively. Clerisy Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2007. ISBN 978-1578602841.

IDEOU. Brainstorming - rules & techniques for idea generation. URL:

Kat Koppett. Training to imagine : practical improvisational theatre techniques for trainers and managers to enhance creativity, teamwork, leadership and learning. Stylus Pub, Sterling, Va, 2013. ISBN 9781579225926.

Darya L Zabelina and Michael D Robinson. Child’s play: facilitating the originality of creative output by a priming manipulation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4(1):57, 2010.