Plan to Improvise

Here’s some meeting advice you don’t hear every day: Don’t plan – improvise. Sound like a recipe for disaster? Not if you’re using improv as a vehicle to help your sales reps think in a completely different way and become more effective, authentic communicators.

Improv is essentially a combination of comedy and theater, and its use in meetings is much like a corporate version of Who’s Line Is It Anyway?, says Charlie Johnson, president of Denver-based Creativity Engineering, a company that specializes in the use of improv to generate creativity and humor in sales meetings. “We use our model of improv to get people to think outside the box, be in the moment, be authentic, learn listening skills and collaborate with each other,” says Johnson.

He accomplishes this feat through a two-part program that starts with a simple exercise designed to bring success and get meeting participants in the improv spirit called Yes, and…! The exercise depends on participants agreeing with and then building on a statement made by their teammates. For example, Johnson might make up a product name, such as the Schmenge. The first attendee might say: The Schmenge is a revolutionary picnic basket. To agree and add to it, the next person might say: Yes, and it comes in 16 different colors. The exercise goes on with each person saying: Yes, and….! The exercise, says Johnson, teaches sales reps to look at ways to meet customers’ demands without saying no. Companies have also used the Yes, and…! exercise to solve problems in creative ways, such as the need to reduce costs.

In the second half of the program, Johnson gives teams an assignment related to the meeting’s goals. For example, Harley Davidson hired Creativity Engineering to help it find ways to attract younger customers. Johnson’s assignment to the participating teams: Create a two- to three-minute skit illustrating that goal in a recognizable genre. One team did a horror movie in which the brain of an older Harley rider was transplanted into the body of a younger potential rider, a la Frankenstein. “It was a perfect representation of what they needed to do as a company: Sell the look and sizzle that attracts older riders and transplant it into younger riders,” says Johnson.

These improv sessions work best with groups of between 30 and 100 people, although Johnson has worked successfully with groups as large as 300. For more information, visit