Just Improvise

– By Hanah Van Borek

clarient-jazz-improv - Hanah blog post

PR demands a lot of strategy, organization, and focus, but a truly skilled PR practitioner has a strong ability to improvise. If you’re reading this and you work in PR, then you probably know this to be true, but I’d argue that it’s also true for most professions.

For example, if you’re coordinating an event or a project, it’s inevitable that some type of problem will unravel at the least convenient of moments leaving you to fix it quickly. Improvisation is a time when the brain lowers its inhibitions (this has been proven in studies) and allows a stream of consciousness to flow. From that stream of consciousness, a brilliant solution is buried. How to uncover it is the trick.

I’ll give you another obvious example of when PR requires improv, and that is pitching to media. Depending on the type of angle you have concocted, chances are, there’s a journalist on the other end of the phone who’s looking for something different. Your ability to ad-lib and let your stream of consciousness unfold is what nails you the hit.

Tina Fey, one of my all time favorite people, is a gifted comedienne, writer, entrepreneur and improviser. In her book, Bossypants, Tina credits the skills she learned in improv as her key to success. Here’s a brilliant (and hilarious) excerpt:

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.

The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.

In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who says things like “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up!” and “I felt menaced when Terry raised her voice.”

MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements, with your actions and your voice.

Instead of saying “Where are we?” make a statement like “Here we are in Spain, Dracula.” Okay, “Here we are in Spain, Dracula” may seem like a terrible start to a scene, but this leads us to the best rule:

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

Tina_FeyTina, as usual, gives very wise advice. Her rules are simple; Agree, Contribute, Make Statements, There Are No Mistakes. In my opinion, all of these happen when we break free of our inhibitions. When we agree, we’re open to ideas, when we contribute, we’re giving something to those ideas, when we make statements, we’re confident in those ideas and finally when we create a world of “no mistakes”, we’re being a bit rebellious and letting go by no longer worrying about the consequences.

Brainstorming is another perfect example of the art of improv and something we depend on greatly in PR. Some of the best ideas come from moments of pure spontaneity. Think of a great jazz musician or a rapper freestyling, they are expressing something uniquely creative that’s never been heard before by them or anyone else. They couldn’t do it if they were constantly worrying about what people were thinking.

Without breaking free of our inhibitions it’s hard to allow our inner voice unveil its genius, that’s where our instincts remain and they usually know what’s best. Phoebe is always telling our team at Magnolia to listen to our gut feeling.

These are just a few of several applications we use improv for in the world of PR, and there are plenty of others. It’s hard to believe how an art perceived by most as a “theatre sport” could be so useful, but it goes to show how the skills we take for granted deserve a chance to be developed. Who knows, joining a theatre club might be a good way to try them out.

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