If you’re a fan of stand-up comedy, then you’re probably no stranger to the magic of improv. Short for improvisation, what sets form of live comedy aside from regular stand up is the dynamic acting environment that requires comics to devise punchlines on the go – usually with the help of supporting partners or audience suggestions.
In improv, the comics walk on stage with neither plan nor conception about what’s going to happen next. Not a trivial task by any means, and yet, the crew from the television series Whose Line is it Anyways? or Key & Peele seemingly mastered the art of churning out sketch after sketch of unique and ludicrously amusing content. If you’ve ever wished that your creativity could flow as freely as it does for these improv veterans, then read on…
Be the “Yes-man”
How often do you go back and revise your writing because you thought “no… that’s stupid” or “no… that would never work”? Now, try to recall the last time you’ve heard a stand-up comic say “no” while in the middle of a sketch. If you’re having difficulty remembering, that’s because they rarely say no! In comedy, stating “no” without providing a legitimate reason or an alternative is equivalent to sabotaging your own car – stopping both the conversation and forcing your partners (or yourself if you’re working alone) to think up something else on the spot.
When we’re writing, simply saying “yes, and…” to our seemingly silly ideas opens up new paths we may not have encountered otherwise. According to Amanda Stein from content creation agency Craft Your Content, “practicing this sort of acceptance and grace encourages you to have an open mind towards your writing ideas and to see their potential.” It’s okay to concoct or accept absurd ideas, because as writers, we have the luxury of reclining in our chairs to think about what happens next, or to steer the story into a more acceptable position – unlike improv actors, who are basically high octane writers churning out stories to be instantly judged by a very discerning audience.
Once copywriters formulate an idea, we have a natural tendency to feel biased towards our creations and will fight to implement them. In improv, this becomes a problem, because when the narrative takes a sudden turn away from your expected route (very common in marketing due to a client revision or the sudden inclusion/withdrawal of information) – your clever idea or pun will no longer be relevant. According to Stein, you need to develop the discipline and willingness to “ruthlessly kill your darlings”. “Once you’ve trained yourself to kill ideas that need to be abandoned (for whatever reason), it’ll get easier and easier to do,” she says. “You’ll become an expert in searching for what actually works versus what you want to work.”
Be the unexpected
If you’ve worked with a client or a product long enough, then you’ll probably have some idea of what their targeted consumers are like and what their preferences are. Knowing this, Stein points out that you can relate to your readers much more easily. “Improv will help you to know what your audiences expect – and will force you to give them something compellingly original,” she says. “If you’re coming up with the exact same ideas on stage that anyone in the audience could suggest, why would they bother going to you to be entertaining or informed?” Give your readers something new, perhaps even a surprise twist!
According to Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele, improv is all about showing a story over telling it – a style of delivery illustrated in his show via the “the invisible game” technique, where the core joke is slowly built upon without ever being explicitly spoken of. “The audience loves to figure things out,” Key says to business magazine Fast Company. “They love it when a performer leaves a trail of bread crumbs for them [so that] they get to participate in the comedy.”
While improv will help you come up with more creative ideas, you’ll just need to accept that some clients are old fashioned and want you to keep writing the same boring content – a depressing truth of the marketing industry. However, if you apply the improv rule of “yes, and…” to sprinkle a bit of the unexpected into the next proposal or pitch, who knows… they might just say yes back!
For more, TED-Ed provides an interesting list of 10-minute writing prompts that you can do to keep your improv writing sharp.