Why are improv techniques so useful in virtual settings? By definition, improv is something that happens in the moment. It’s unpredictable, surprising and for most people, it’s can be a lot of fun, something most virtual gatherings could use more of. Improv techniques are adaptable, flexible and can be used in so many ways: creating a level playing field, making connections, breaking the ice, cultivating trust, and injecting new life into any conversation. Activities can take as little as three to five minutes and can use any combination of virtual tools, including audio, video, breakouts, chat, whiteboard, emojis, GIFs, as well as everyday objects. Like virtual get-togethers, improv works best within known restrictions, allowing for new approaches to familiar situations.
In what ways does improv help us break out of our “usual” thinking? Improv gives us permission to take chances and make ourselves vulnerable in ways that might surprise us. Ironically, imposing rules can do the most to unleash creativity. (Examples: In just two words…using no body language…in no more than 30 seconds…without any words to describe…or, pick up the closest object,) Improv can also help to create a level playing field among all participants, regardless of title, culture, tenure, expertise, or location, since everyone has a chance to play, and no one has an inherent advantage. The usual constraints imposed by hierarchal structures, language differences, dominant personalities and other factors quickly become irrelevant. This leveling of “status” applies to the facilitator, too. By being vulnerable and compassionate, you quickly build a sense of safety.
What guidelines should we consider when using improv techniques in virtual settings? Above all, make sure everyone feels safe to participate or to decline. Never force anyone to “play” along. Some people need to observe others playing before they will venture forth, and some may want to hang back the whole time. One reason improv is so effective is that observers are as emotionally connected to the experience as the players. Reflect cultural differences when choosing activities and asking for volunteers, especially for cultures where there are power differentials. Some activities work best when some level of trust exists at the outset, among participants, between facilitator and group, or a combination. An activity that invites people to be vulnerable with others could be tricky with a group where there is a high degree of animosity or distrust. Make it easy for people to wade in. Small breakouts are often the best way to get people talking, making it easier to expand the conversation later on.
What happens when no one talks? Let the silence “breathe” for a while. Some people need time to respond to the instruction, and others feel more relaxed when another person goes first. Silence can be a powerful way to connect people and establish a tangible feeling of presence. Wait longer than you think you need to break the silence (say, for 15 seconds or so), and eventually, someone is bound to jump in. Another option: If you get no verbal response, ask people to type in the chat, in a shared document, or a virtual whiteboard instead. Many people feel more comfortable “speaking” by writing.
Do we need to debrief every activity? The short answer is yes, pretty much. Even when it’s a really quick activity, it’s almost always worthwhile to spend even just a minute or two “unpacking” it. For example, after someone volunteers for an activity, you might ask others what prevented their hands from going up, or how they felt when someone else finally stepped up. By asking people to share their feelings (whether out loud or by typing), you’re helping them to demonstrate empathy for themselves and for others around the table. Before moving on, explain how this activity is related to the conversation at hand, even if it’s a tenuous one. Or ask the group to make a connection between their improv experience and something going on in their “real-world.”
Where and how do you build improv activities into your agenda? You can pop them in them anywhere — at the very start to break the ice, make intros, or just to encourage people to start talking. You can also plan an exercise or two to segue to a new topic or pick up energy after a break. Of course, improv activities can also be used as part of a conversation related to your meeting goals. For example, if participants are creating a vision statement, you can modify a storytelling activity to make it fun. Improv activities can also be a great way to lift the energy of the group when you’ve hit a lull. A note of caution: When you’re creating your timed agenda, factor in how long each activity is likely to run; at the same time, build enough “sway” into your agenda to accommodate one or two brief unplanned exercises. We suggest creating a storyboard that correlates a particular activity to a meeting objective. Depending on the length of the meeting and a host of other factors, be strategic about where you place the activities for the greatest impact.
How do you know which activities will work best? If you know something about your participants, you may be able to guess which activities might work better than others. For example, a group of engineers might respond differently to a particular activity than a group of salespeople. A group of senior leaders with a high degree of distrust for each other may feel uncomfortable with an exercise that invites them to be vulnerable. Cultural and language differences may also affect your selection. However, we have found that regardless of occupation, organization, demographic or other differences, even the most reluctant participants later say how much they appreciated the opportunity to “just be human” and have fun. Izzy keeps a “playlist” of activities, including some “just in case” that he can use at any time. He aims to offer a mix of experiences, with an activity for each objective and a variety of ways to participate. Choices include individual posts into chat or a discussion board; breakouts in pairs, triads or more; spotlighting two or more players in a “fishbowl” while others watch; or an activity for everyone to play together, or in a particular sequence.
How do improv techniques help sharpen the skills of virtual meeting leaders? Just as an improv exercise can help relax participants and make them feel more ready to join the conversation, it can have the same calming effect on the meeting leader. Because we have to make ourselves vulnerable when leading or participating in an improv exercise, we can build rapid trust at the outset in ways that a “typical” roll-call exercise couldn’t easily accomplish. Improv requires us to think fast and take chances, something that all of us need to get a lot more comfortable with in the virtual world, where it takes a lot of practice to be able to “read the room.”
Once upon a time, improv techniques were once thought to be the exclusive province of comedians and game show personalities. “Game-playing” was considered too risky by many people trying to guide “serious” conversations. With the movement to an all-virtual workplace, that’s changing, as many of us are searching for new and novel ways to enliven virtual meetings, stimulate enlightening conversations, build trust, and help people make vital connections. If you’re shy about using improv techniques, choose something simple (such as asking everyone to replace “Yes, but” with “Yes, and….” during a brainstorming session). Add to your repertoire as you build confidence. Your participants will thank you.