One of my greatest regrets is not being able to find the time to attend more improv comedy workshops in my life. I attended one, loved it, and felt like a fish out of water, BUT was promptly besieged by other obligations and duties. Man, being an adult sucks sometimes…
But I did pick up quite a bit during my time there. My most important takeaway was that improv comedy and sparkling conversation share the exact same goal: a pleasurable interaction for the audience. Of course, the audience for improv comedy is the people in the chairs, while the audience for conversation is the people involved.
It seems very natural to apply the frameworks and rules of improv to conversation because at their best, conversations hop from topic to topic, people play off each other, and it never ends up where you think it will. Here are three techniques from improv comedy to hugely, greatly, magnificently improve your conversations.
#1. Support Your Teammates
In improv, the people you are on stage with are your teammates in making something out of nothing – improvising a scene from a random set of prompts. Remember you’ve got the same goal! You can’t be freestylin’ and maverickin’ in this scenario. You have to work with everyone else because you don’t have control over the scene, what they’ll say, or the prompts. It involves a group of people creating something. It’s 100% unpredictable, which means you have to be as helpful as possible to your teammates and even become their best supporting actor.
What are the parallels to conversation? Well, everything. Your only agenda going into a conversation should be working with them to create a great interaction. You shouldn’t go in with other expectations, trying to control the conversation, or not listening to what they say. If improv actors didn’t listen to each other, it would be a disaster – but this happens all too frequently in conversation.
Supporting your teammate really means making conversation as easy as you can for the other person, which will make it great for them. Ask them more detailed questions, fill in the blanks for them, take it upon yourself to end awkward silence, and be prepared to carry most of the conversation if necessary. If you see them struggling, confused, or quiet, step in and help!
#2: More Details
In improv, general questions and general answers are incredibly unhelpful. At worst, they can stall an entire scene.
Why are they so tough on others? Because they put the burden of detail and engagement on the other person! In the following conversation, take note of who has to do the heavy lifting (which most people won’t do for you).
Bob: So, where are you from?
Bob: Okay… what city?”
Bob: … Okay, were you born there, too?
Jimbob: No, I wasn’t.
Bob: Where were you born?
Jimbob: Right outside of Chicago.
Jimbob is really getting on my nerves. Here’s how Jimbob can do better with more detail:
Bob: So, where are you from?
Jimbob: Well, I was born right outside of Chicago, but most people don’t know anything about Illinois so I just say Chicago.
Bob: Where outside of Chicago?
Jimbob: It’s a little town called Exodus, whose claim to fame is that Michael Jordan once crashed his car into our general store.
Bob: Were you born there, too?
Jimbob: Yes, I was born there. There’s only a population of about a thousand, and one hospital, so you could say it was a big deal.
See how much more easily it flows when Jimbob opens up like a clam and simply provides some detail? Details are how people connect with each other and how stories are turned into experiences. If you want people to care, go into detail. By the way, there is a BIG difference between going into detail and talking someone’s ears off.
#3: Follow the Breadcrumbs
In improv, you only have what someone says or seems to convey to react to. This means you better become an expert at reading people’s body language or reading between the lines of what they say, because otherwise you’ll be left in the dark in any scene.
Yup, it’s the same with conversation, we’re usually just too self-centered to notice. Whatever someone is saying, they are saying it for a reason. It’s a breadcrumb for us to follow so they can talk about what they want. 99% of people won’t say, “Hey, let’s talk about my dog now. So…” instead, they’ll hint at it.
If they bring it up by themselves, they want to talk about it. If they keep bringing it up, they want to talk about it even more. If they talk about something in great detail, they want to talk about it. If they ask multiple questions about it, they want to talk about it. If they appear excited at a topic, they want to talk about it. Don’t change topics.
Of course, following these obvious breadcrumbs requires us to put our own interests to the side, which is half the battle in conversation (and much easier said than done).
For more on how improv comedy can supercharge your social skills and charisma, check out: Improve Your Conversations: Think on Your Feet, Witty Banter, and Always Know What To Say with Improv Comedy Techniques