Improv ideas in stressful situations


You are stuck in the airplane for hours with little information, you are waiting for traffic piled up in front of you, or a false alarm fire bell empties your building to the parking lot. These are times when big changes happen to everyone's routine and people get stressed out.

Right now I'm in the first case. I the middle of my flight to Munich we diverted to Boston because the main cabin lost all power. Sleepy travelers, who have not been given much information find various ways to cope or find some control.

This is a time when I hope that everyone on the airplane has taken an improv class.

Accepting offers you are given: often they can't be changed so accept them and move forward with what has been given.

  • we are diverting to Boston
  • we are sitting on the tarmac

Making your partner look good: makings things better or easier for others make you both feel better.

  • the flight crew can't change things, taking it out on them doesn't help
  • helping other unhappy passengers get bags, move past, eases tensions

Serve the story: what can you do to make the situation the best for everyone instead of focusing just for yourself.

  • Don't be the loud person who has to get off right away
  • The story changed so focus on what comes next to tell the story as it is now, what is the next flight I need now.

The principles of improv are great for life every day, and really come into clear relief when the pressure goes up.

What are situations where you have used these ideas yourself, or what have you seen where you wish others had taken an improv class?

Applied Improv Principles: Listening


In the article What is Applied Improv? I discussed seven principles of improv that apply in the work environment. Here I expand on the concept of "Listening" Listening is something we all do every day. In improv the concept of listening goes beyond hearing words that others are saying. Deeper listening involves letting go of your own ideas and being in the moment to take in what is being communicated. Instead, we are often waiting for a pause to insert our own ideas, using the time others are speaking to refine what we are going to say when they stop. Listening also absorbing holistically to how things are being said including gesture, inflection, expression, body-language, and vocal tone. In doing this we are seeking to understand the full meaning in it’s context.

Take a moment and recall the last conversation you had with someone. Could you tell their story to someone else? How much detail could you remember? How about the tone they used?

In fact when we are really connected we can listen for much more than the words. The next time you are hearing someone tell you their story, try to listen for all of these aspects:

  • Descriptive details (where, color, size, number, etc)
  • Tone of the story
  • Their emotion - how important is the story to them
  • Who is the story really about - usually one person primarily
  • What gestures do they use?
  • Vocal quality - loud, dynamic, whispered
  • What is their intent? - to persuade, convince, relate, validate, help, share?

The key is to focus on the other person instead of yourself, your own reaction, or what you are going to say. You may also have to put away your expectation of where they are going with it. Open yourself up to being surprised.

Applied Improv Principles: Storytelling is Collaboration

In the article What is Applied Improv? I discussed seven principles of improv that apply in the work environment. Here I expand on the concept of "Storytelling is Collaboration" As humans, we are natural storytellers. Much of how we communicate and think comes from telling stories to ourselves and others. Each story that we tell involves people, experiences and ideas that we have interacted with in our lives. (Sawyer, 2007) * In this way our stories are a collaboration with all of those elements that we have experienced. Bringing together the combined experiences of several people allow us to tell stories as a group with each person adding their own offers. A team solving a business problem in a group meeting is a story that might look something like this:

Once upon a time our product was constantly in demand, but sales have been down for a year, because of that we are looking at our customer feedback, because of that we see that updates to the product are needed, and now we can create a plan to roll out the new features. This summary story might take place over several meetings with many different people adding pieces to the story based on their experiences and ideas.


Collaboration means listening for those offers and accepting them in a way that makes your partner look good and builds on them by “Yes, and”ing them.

*Sawyer, Keith 2007. Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration



Took an improv class. Loved it. Continued. Quit my full time, full medical/dental/eye, three week paid vacation job. Met a cute boy on the improv stage. Fell in love. Got married. Got two kids, ages 2 and 4. AWHAT?How the heck did that happen?But I am here to tell you that improv makes you a KICK-ASS parent, in every realm, but here today in that, “Mom/Dad, tell me a story.” department. At the end of a long day, you are usually exhausted and the last thing you want to do is to make-up a story. But I tell you there is such joy in watching your kids face light up, laugh, get serious as you tell the story.

7 key elements that you learn in improv that help you tell a story to your kids.

Tell them before bed, driving in a car, anywhere. Kids love stories.

1. Use the story spine

You cannot fail with this. Use it as a framwork but feel free to move away from it.

Once upon a time.... And Everyday.... Until One Day..... Because of that....(at least 3) Until Finally..... And Ever Since That Day...

2. Dare to Fail

My goodness, do not worry about your story being good. You are communicating with a toddler. You are already their hero, in their eyes, you cannot fail. By sitting there close to your kid and talking that is already a win-win situation.

3. Don't worry about making sense - Leap into storytelling

Say something, anything, what's in your brain, use what's around you, and the story will follow.

4. Color and Move on

If you are stuck, start describing the scene, talk about the pirate, how he has dark green eyes that flash gold when he's angry. When someone is bad, they are really, really bad and give an example of how bad they are. “When Cranky Frank started yelling, even the astronauts on the moon heard him!”

5. Tell stories you want to hear/tell

I have followed the advice that my friend Rebecca told me when I asked her advice on teaching improv to kids. She told me that kids have amazing bullshit detectors, teach what you like. They will see right through you and then eat you. Same goes for storytelling. Tell something that delights you. I sometimes find myself giggling at the very story I am telling.

6. Have same characters in different adventures/Repetition is your friend!

An easy cheat is to use the same characters in different stories. We have a favorite in our house. It's called, “Hank and Glick” Hank is a boy and Glick is a tiny little alien from Smallville. The bad guys are wakawakaians from the planet Waka Waka. Hank is the more sensible of the two and Glick is just so excited to be on Earth and experiencing it that they get into all sorts of trouble. They fly around in a bubble space ship. Don't be surprised if they remember the details that you have forgotten.

7. Say YES – Leave space for child to help tell the story.

My philosophy is if Henry asks a question about the story, the answer is always YES! It keeps me on my toes and leads me places I wouldn't have thought of. So take pauses in your storytelling, ask questions.

It is my absolute delight when I ask my kids if they want me to read them a story or tell them a story and they say, “TELL ME A STORY!” So go tell a story.

Kurt Vonnegut on Drama

My friend Chet, an improviser with Secret Improv Society in San Francisco, sent me this article.

It is really interesting look at at some very familiar story structures, the "Cinderella" story, the "Disaster" story, and then real life.

This is an interesting way of looking at Narrative arcs. Personally, as a visual thinker, I find this useful especially when looking at longer improv formats with more than one connected scene.

I like the idea that we can, in improv, take explore these high's and low's easily.  There are no restrictions, we can go anywhere, anytime, and be anything.