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There’s something about improv


During times of change we need to learn as we go along, responding and adapting to each new circumstance. Interactions are at the heart of such learning. And improvisation can give you the skills you need to be a master of those interactions.

A useful maxim states, “The action is in the interaction”. In complex circumstances, each interaction is likely to be different. Improvisation experts have the advantage in these practical, paradoxical places where you need both structure and freedom. You need to be able both to plan and to respond instantly as the plan unfolds. You need both a clear awareness of direction and the agility to work with whatever emerges.

To be fully skilled as a trainer or workshop leader, it is vital to be comfortable improvising. Whether you see yourself as a leader, manager or coach, you gain a huge advantage when you can respond elegantly in the moment as your meetings with colleagues or workshops with team members proceed. You approach your strategic goals by developing fluency in your tactics.

Of course, a trainer is improvising most of the time. If we understand improvisation as the exercise of freedom within a structure, your training outline provides a structure, and it is within this that you are constantly making choices. As you increase your improvisation skills, you get better at making more appropriate responses. The result is you get closer to what you want, even in the most difficult circumstances. From the traditions of drama and performance, we already know that important skills of improvisation include:

* Listening skills – the performer’s first duty is to listen to what is happening in the scene, so as to join (or continue) precisely that scene. If they have not been attentive and aware, they are going to upset the audience by appearing to lurch into a different reality. This tends to look either selfish, careless or both.
* Ability to be present – the state of being ready in the here and now; avoiding distractions of past, future and awareness wandering elsewhere.
* Responsiveness – the ability to respond in the moment to the signals around us and to our own relevant processes.
* Creativity – the ability to come up with something new and useful at just the moment that it is needed, including connecting what’s there in unprecedented ways.

How do these connect to training? The trainer makes use of all of the above skills as they progress beyond formulaic teaching methods. It is fine to have a structure, to know in advance what you want and have a plan for getting there – what makes the difference is using freedom within that structure, and it is improvisational skills that equip the trainer to use the structures to best advantage. We can usefully think of this as the workshop leader being a highly-skilled performer in the learning environment.

A primary skill – and one that is sometimes counter-intuitive – is saying ‘Yes,’ in response to offers. In dramatic improvisation, saying ‘Yes’ to a partner’s offer during a scene is the most important way to keep that scene going. For a trainer, it is part of accepting the participants as valuable contributors to the project. It also reinforces the interactional principle of staying on the surface, working with what you get, co-constructing as you go along, not looking to impose pre-thought theories or to search for hidden meanings. Better ideas stand more chance of emerging in the course of the conversation.

An improvisational performer becomes expert at leading and at following, and at knowing when each is appropriate. Likewise, the workshop leader is in a ‘dance of conversation’ with colleagues, clients and the wider world.

It may seem paradoxical to discuss techniques for spontaneity. Yet through application of techniques we may reach a point at which pure spontaneity takes over. Perhaps that will happen at times during your experience of improvisation, when everything simply flows. And the same can occur when training, leading, coaching, facilitating, or presenting – you know what to do, you do it effortlessly and it fits the context perfectly. In short, it works.

Why do we need spontaneity?
• For ourselves as trainers, it enables us to handle whatever comes up, riding over the bumps inevitable in any interactional situation.
• It sharpens our receptivity – so we can learn new skills and be open to new experience.
• It widens our range, so that we can continue to grow.

Improvisation is a way of opening the door to take in more of our experience and an alternative to blocking out the many signals which are available to us.

Think about the work you do as a trainer and in helping other people to develop and learn… How could these core skills help you to span those gaps from where people are now to where they want to be? What will you do to incorporate these principles and techniques into the work you do?

This is a Unimenta guest blog by our expert Paul Z Jackson

Paul Z Jackson works with executives, managers, coaches, facilitators and trainers. An executive coach and organizational change consultant, his books include Impro Learning, The Inspirational Trainer, 58½ Ways to Improvise in Training and he is co-author of The Solutions Focus – Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE, and Positively Speaking – the art of constructive conversations.

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Emma Sue Prince


Read more from Emma Sue Prince

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