How Improv Makes Me a Better Marketer
This blog was written by Setup’s Social Media and Content Manager, Madeline Evans. Madeline has been performing improv for over 5 years and currently works as a professional improviser in Atlanta. She regularly performs as a company member of Atlanta’s Village Theatre in addition to the independent improv group, Six Kids Improv.
Two improvisers enter a stage. One is gesturing in the air as if throwing pizza dough. Then, their partner enters with the line, “I see you got my report, Johnson.” The first responds, “I sure did and, let me tell ya, the numbers don’t look too good.”
Immediately, the audience knows that this is an office and the partner in the scene, the one miming pizza upfront, is given the gift that they are a neglectful businessman who responds by throwing reports all over the place.
These first two moments embody much of what makes up improv: listening, adapting, reacting, agreeing, and adding.
Improv is an art form present in everyday life. From jazz musicians following a riff, to a nervous boyfriend reviewing topics to discuss with his girlfriend’s parents - improv is everywhere.
What does improv have to do with marketing?
Mastering the ability to think on one’s feet makes any situation easier - especially in marketing. Whether working in customer service, a pitching environment, social media marketing, or on a team - marketers who purposefully or subconsciously employ some of the foundational pillars of improv will undoubtedly find more success connecting with their consumers.
Improv Pillar #1
Accept the curve balls
First things first, improv comedy is silly. It is creating a world out of nothing and playing pretend for the audience’s enjoyment. In order to perform, improvisers must abandon their self-conscious thoughts and let loose - agreeing to the notion that yes, the improviser may be eating an invisible chocolate cake...but it’s a delicious cake that the character loves.
Marketers also need to let go - of preconceived notions, old habits, the fear of being wrong, and anything else that is holding them back. They need to accept the crazy ride that is marketing. Just like in the first example where the improviser was throwing pizza dough and the second character changed the setting to an office - one player had to accept the offer of the other partner and work with it.
Acceptance takes many forms. It could be an agency working with and making the best out of a client’s campaign, or it could be a marketing leader accepting that the social media algorithms have changed yet again, and he/she must adapt to a completely new social media marketing strategy.
The important thing is to always keep an open, positive mind and accept that things will change from time to time. Otherwise, you risk the audience not “getting” the scene (or the brand).
Improv Pillar #2
Acknowledge other ideas
In order to acknowledge a scene partner in an improv scene, the improviser must listen. Similar to a conversation, scenes are built by one partner providing information and then the other partner providing information on top of the foundation already laid. This is often compared to each partner bringing a brick and laying their brick one on top of the other.
As Del Close, one of the most famous improvisers/teachers to this day, once said, “Bring a brick to the scene instead of a whole cathedral. Build together!” If partners don’t listen to one another, the scene becomes disjointed, tense, and hard to follow for the audience.
Marketers must always listen - to consumer preferences, scandals, industry news, their team, social media trends...the list goes on and on. Marketers who shut out outside influences may have trouble progressing in an evolving world.
Social listening, surveys, focus groups, and engaging in conversations on social media are great outlets for communicating and hearing an audience’s needs.
As Margaret Johnson, the Chief Creative Officer of Goodby Silverstein & Partners said, “Draw your inspiration from everywhere but advertising - go to museums, watch documentary films, read comic books…” The more marketers are influenced by outside factors, the more they grow.
Listening is imperative to improv and, what’s more than listening, is reacting to what was just said. Truly captivating improv scenes are based on honest, truthful reactions that strike a familiar chord with the audience.
A company can listen all they want, but if there is little to no action, then what is the point?
Whether sarcastically responding to a tweet or apologizing for an offensive campaign, an on-brand response that has authenticity and humanity will almost always be received better by the audience.
Adapt to change
Just like the improviser who thought he was a pizza maker quickly had to adapt to the mindset of a businessman in order to make the scene work, marketers have to adapt to the unexpected changes or challenges that inevitably arise in business.
By listening to modern trends and observing competitors, brands can get a feel for which adaptations are necessary and mitigate the risk of making the wrong move.
But make no mistake - brands must adapt to remain relevant in an ever-changing market. Otherwise, they risk suffering the same fate as Blockbuster or Circuit City.
What they need to remember is to embrace the risks! Don’t get stage fright!
Support, support, support!
Ah yes, the beloved “and” to the “yes, and” principle - agreeing to the offer and adding more information. This concept encourages creative ideation and is beneficial for team brainstorming or agency-client meetings.
However, while “yes, and” is imperative to any improviser, improv (and marketing) is about much more than agreeing to the reality of the scene.
If an agency presents a marketing strategy that does not land with the client (or vice versa) - it’s important to acknowledge the originator’s ideas and use the current thought processes to invoke new inspiration. This keeps the creative process moving in the right direction with the right dynamics.
Support is one of the most important aspects in improv and relationships. Support your partner and they’ll support you.
In an agency-client relationship, this kind of support is especially important. Since some partnerships force agencies into an order-taking role (as opposed to a challenger role), the support dynamic is derailed. As a result, the ideation process suffers.
The reality is, when teams support one another’s ideas, clients and agencies can build better, more effective partnerships.
Just like improv is more complex than a bunch of adults playing “make believe” onstage, marketing is more complex than display ads and social media posts. If marketers start thinking like an improviser, they’ll find themselves more in tune with where they are needed, why they are needed, and what they need to do to accomplish their goals.
As someone who lives in the intersection between marketing and improvising, I find improv immensely valuable for all the reasons above and more. I know how to operate, manage, and work with a team daily. I use my experience developing diverse characters with a distinct point of view to portray my personal and company brand voices on social media.
Improv not only helps blow off steam, but it connects you with people from all walks of life. Exposing myself to different perspectives and putting my guard down to be vulnerable in a scene allows me to experience empathy and the human spirit at its core. And, without the human element, what is marketing anyway?
PS - My improv group can even help your team with team building and improv skills - check us out!