Lessons from the Improv comedy stage can help us improve our communication skills! Comedians Sandy Marshall and Sandy Jobin-Bevans share their expertise – and a few laughs – including playing the scene you’re in, the beauty of mistakes, knowing your audience, testing your audience, “YES-AND,” burning a suggestion, and more! Whether you’re pitching for business, interviewing for a new job, or talking to your kids, these improv lessons can make you a more effective communicator. Thank you Sandy & Sandy!
Downloadable (PDF) version of the shownotes is available HERE.
SUMMARY: Lessons from the Improv Stage
References & Links
SUMMARY: Lessons from the IMPROV Stage
“Improv comedy, at its core,
is about listening and thinking on your feet.”
- Confidence and preparation are key. The Sandys are big proponents of preparing the script (or the 100 slide deck!) in advance but then having an improvised conversation.
- Mistakes – When you go to an audition, a job interview, or a sales pitch, you either nail it or – you have a great story. It turns out mistakes are where the best comedy comes from.
- Know your audience – Know who’s in the room in advance. Ask, “Who is everyone going to look at to see if it’s ok to laugh?”
- Test your audience – Comedians will try a few taboos – sexuality, politics, religion,… See where the audience wants to go. Swear once, and see what happens.
- Timing is critical when you’re onstage. We need to know when the show is over – and leave them wanting more.
- Play the scene you’re in, not the one you want to be in.
- Pimping is assigning someone else a task that you don’t want to do.
- Burning a suggestion is asking for a suggestion, with an example that you don’t want to use (e.g. ‘”Can I get a suggestion for character name – like Sandy?”)
- Object work is miming with objects that don’t exist.
- Respect and empathy are key to improv. That means “listening and being a good human.”
- Competition vs. Cooperation – Much of what we do offstage is a zero sum game. The thing about improv, is that it’s not a zero sum game. You can laugh at everybody. Improvisers have a pre-show ritual: “Got your back. Got your back, got your back.”
- Thanks for the question – Diffuse a confrontational Q with a sincere, thanks for the question. It gives you a minute to think about your answer and it calms the room. It’s a little piece of jujitsu in those high-pressure situations.
- YES AND is a core tenet of improv. Yes, I heard your offer. And I build on that offer. Try responding with “Yes, and.”
References & Links
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/SandyJBevans
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sandyjbevans/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/MarshallSandy
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/marshallsandy/
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandymarshall/
- Norman Howard (their firm) – https://www.normanhowardco.com/
- Second City – https://www.secondcity.com/
- Essentialism by Greg McCowan (book) – https://amzn.to/33oZTTT
Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki
- Free Weekly Email Blog – https://talkabouttalk.com/blog/#newsletter-signup
- Website: https://talkabouttalk.com
- Ep.22: FUNNY TALK with comedian & professor Hillary Anger Elfenbein – https://talkabouttalk.com/22s2-funny-talk-with-stand-up-comedian-business-school-professor-hillary-anger-elfenbein/
- Ep28: CHANGE MANAGEMENT with professor & author Ellen Auster – https://talkabouttalk.com/28-communicating-change-with-ellen-auster/
- Facebook Group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/2512948625658629/
- Andrea’s email – [email protected]
Dr. Andrea’s Commentary
Hey there, I’m Dr. Andrea Wojnicki. You can call me Andrea. Thanks for listening to Talk About Talk. This is where we come to learn and talk about all things communication. Because when we communicate effectively, we can be a better manager, colleague, parent, partner, and friend.
Today, we’re talking about Improv. Specifically, we’re learning lessons from the improv stage that can help us communicate more effectively. Yes, I interviewed a comedian. Two, in fact. Sandy Marshall and Sandy Jobin-Bevans, both Second City alumni who now teach Improv skills.
In this podcast, you’ll learn lessons from the Improv stage that definitely apply to the “real world” – off the improv stage – whether it’s pitching a sales presentation or encouraging creativity in a brainstorming session, or maybe – it’s talking to your kids. These Improv lessons certainly apply.
At the end of this interview, my face was hurting from smiling so much! Trust me, you’re in for some laughs!
Here’s how this episode will unfold. First, I’m going to introduce Sandy and Sandy to you, then we will get right into the interview. After the interview, I am going to list the lessons from the Improv stage that Sandy and Sandy shared. This list of lessons from Improv can also be found in the shownotes on the talkabouttalk.com website. So sit back – and enjoy!
First – Sandy Marshall. Sandy is a Chicago Emmy-nominated writer and producer. He has over 20 years’ experience creating comedy – and building businesses. He’s a former vice president at the world famous Second City Works and he is now a faculty member at the Second City Training Centre.
Sandy Marshall created the satirical business column called Workish, he’s a frequent business speaker, a 2x NASA Social alum, co-founder of Toronto’s Ensemble learning series, and a 4-time Jurist at the Banff World Media Festival.
As an actor, Sandy Marshall has appeared alongside Vince Vaughn in Ron Howard’s The Dilemma, on Comedy Central’s Still Hungry, and you can see him in PBS’s Emmy-winning Odd Squad. You may have also seen Sandy dressed up as an Exxon scientist in numerous TV commercials. Have you seen those commercials? That’s him!
The “other” Sandy, Sandy Jobin-Bevans, is a nine-time winner at the Canadian Comedy Awards, and an alumnus of the legendary Second City Mainstage.
In addition to appearing in many commercials, Sandy Jobin-Bevans has also appeared in the Great Home Giveaway, Hotbox, You Kill Me, Harold & Kumar Go To Whitecastle, Life With Boys, and Deal With It.
More recently you can see Sandy Jobin-Bevans in the Lifetime movie, Flint, on the NBC sitcom, Bijillionaires, and co-hosting the show Just Like Mom and Dad.
So… YES, these Sandys are qualified to teach us about Improv! While they know each other from Second City, Sandy and Sandy are now partners at a firm called Norman Howard, a Toronto-based comedic content shop. Over the years, they have delivered content and training for many companies and executives. Today, they’re sharing their insights with us!
? Interview Transcript
Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Sandy and Sandy, thank you so much for joining us here today.
Sandy Jobin-Bevans: Well, thanks for having us.
Sandy Marshall: Thank you, Andrea. It’s good to be here.
AW: Let’s start off for people that maybe don’t have context. And can I ask you, Sandy Marshall to describe what is improv comedy?
SM: Improv comedy? I’m going to start and answer. And then I want to hear what Sandy says. I would say improv comedy, at its core, is about listening and thinking on your feet. Improvisation is an art form. It’s been around for quite some time in comedy. Improvisation really is thinking on your feet and being agile and building on what someone else is saying.
SJ-B: Yeah, I think that’s a good distinction. It doesn’t have to necessarily be comedic to be effective. You’d be an improviser that’s using improv techniques and not have to be funny. Our background is in the comedy side of it.
AW: So if I was to go to an improv comedy show, can you share with the listeners just how that would unfold?
SM: Sure. Yeah, I probably would have a host who would come out on stage Welcome, everybody. Hopefully that person would not say “How’s everybody doing tonight?” Cuz they might actually be truthful.
SJ-B: Okay, yeah, Bill Hicks used to say as a stand up comic, he used to say that when you say How’s everybody doing tonight, you just wasted three seconds of your time on stage. So don’t – just assume everyone’s okay.
AW: So actually, when I was learning to do podcast interviews, someone said, Don’t ever ask people on mic how they are. And I’ve noticed since then very few interviewers on the radio – you rarely hear them say, how are you? But every now and then you hear an inexperienced person say, How are ya?
SJ-B: Nooooo- it’s an unnecessary moment.
SM: That’s right. Yeah. So the host would come out,
SJ-B: back to the back of the show.
AW: awkward silence!
SJ-B: That’s right. Yeah.
SM: So if you’re seeing an improv show, it may consist of, you know, a series of improvised scenes or monologues or songs with an ensemble of somewhere between three and six or seven people on a stage. Sometimes the scenes themselves are much longer, some are shorter. There are distinctions in improvisation between long form and short form. So get to the joke quicker, you know, beginning middle and end. In some cases, there’s a long form, it’s a little more like jazz, it might be a longer scene. Really the show consists of a group of people making everything up on the spot based on a suggestion from the audience.
SJ-B: Yeah. And when the show goes well, people often watch it and say, that had to be planned, because it was so good, it had to be planned. And when the show goes bad, they never want to see a comedy show again. So the best thing I think that can happen to you is that you can have, say you had six scenes in a night, five are great and one’s terrible. So they realize that they couldn’t have planned all that because you wouldn’t want that terrible scene. Yeah, it’s very true if it’s too good, and sometimes it’s detrimental. So it’s a strange thing,
AW: because then people think it’s ,,,
SJ-B: Oh, it’s planned. It has to be planned. There’s no way you guys just thought of that in your on your own. Yeah.
AW: I think that fact about something being too consistently good, affects a lot of contexts. It just reminded me when people write a recommendation online, for example, there’s research that shows that if they’re glowingly positive and they refuse to say anything negative about it, then people discard it. And they say it’s not credible. If you just have to say one little thing and it’s kind of like: five out of six, awesome improv skits? That was real.
SJ-B: Right, right. You were talking about a resort and you’re like the beach was amazing. The food was amazing. But there were not enough towels. Yeah, I believe it.
AW: Yeah. So when you first described or defined improv comedy, the first word that came out of your mouth actually made me very happy. It was listening. People have asked me, What do you think is the number one most critical communication skill? and if I had to choose, it would be listening. So hopefully we can we can build on that a little bit, when we get into the section where we talk about improv skills. As you were also defining improv, I was wondering, are the three to six people on the stage – are they competing? Are you competing with the other comedians?
SJ-B: Well, the whole idea of becoming an improviser is that you wouldn’t be competing because we always talk about we’ve got your back or a we always talk about being others-focused as well. So if you’re making other people look good, that’s a huge skill we have as improvisers I think if you’re competing, it’s a good idea to go be a stand up. And I think that’s definitely a different atmosphere. Certainly there are people who become pretty competitive on stage, but then the end up just doing lots of scenes alone.
SM: It’s very true. Yeah.
SJ-B: It shouldn’t be like that. The great shows are when everybody’s there to look out for the other people that are on stage.
AW: Well, it sounds like fun actually.
SJ-B: It is. It is very fun. That takes time to become a very good improviser. But it doesn’t take much time to go to an improv class and just start. People have a blast doing it. And you know, we teach a lot of corporate improvisation and teach improv skills to a lot of big companies. And that’s the first thing – they’re very trepidatious and then they realize, oh, we’re laughing we’re having a good time.
AW: So did you take classes on improv?
SJ-B: Personally, I was in Winnipeg, and I was studying to be a high school history teacher. A friend of mine was saying, well, we have an improv and sketch troupe and one guy can’t make it could you improvise in the show tonight? I had never improvised my entire life and taken a class never done it – never. And he’s like, you seem pretty funny. And I did in front of a paying crowd of like 300 people and that was my first time ever improvising, and I didn’t take a class until six or seven years later. When I got to Second City, they were like: you should take class. Please just to learn the terms we use.
AW: You didn’t know the vocabulary?
SJ-B: No, not at all. So I was like, okay,
AW: so what is some of the vocabulary?
SM: I’d say like a core tenet is the phrase YES AND. So, using the word yes to build on an idea that somebody else is offering something. You might say it’s his initiation, or an offering and an improv scene, you know, things like callbacks or edits or support. There’s a thing that every improviser does before a show and they’ll say got your back. So before the group goes on stage. Everybody’s backstage getting ready to go on with a lot of confidence, a lot of energy. Just a quick moment where everybody, one-on-one says, got your back, got your back, got your back and something we don’t really see in everyday life as well. As Sandy said, we work with businesses or groups, you can tell pretty quickly if a group does have each other’s back or doesn’t. But in the improv world, when you’re doing a show, ideally, you’re going out and you’re really focusing on how can you best listen, work with your fellow improvisers and get each other’s back, and then have fun along the way. Because if you’re not having fun, the audience definitely is not going to be having fun.
SJ-B: No, and they’re the first ones to notice when things are going wrong. The audience knows something’s wrong … The other thing is offers. Offers are things that you’d make a suggestion in a scene. So an offer should be accepted. The YES AND side of it is: yes is I heard your offer, I use your offer and then and is I build on that offer. Offers are a big terminology.
AW: So you don’t literally say the word offer on stage?
SJ-B: No. That’s just what we call it. I made an offer and you didn’t accept it or I made an offer. It was great that you accepted it would be something you talk about after the show. The thing about coming from out West was we had all these other terms like pimping. So pimping is when you say to somebody, okay, now you’re going to sing a song – so you make somebody else do the thing you don’t want to do. And in Winnipeg we used to call it shivving each other like a jailhouse term. You got shivved. Thanks for shivving me in the back with that.
AW: So in the shownotes, and I’m gonna have to have a list of the vocabulary terms that we’re learning. I just have to say, there’s been now probably at least three times in just in the last couple minutes, where you guys have said things where I’m like, wouldn’t it be nice if we acted like that at work and wouldn’t it be nice if that was the kind of camaraderie that we had before we went into a big brainstorming meeting, or we went into even a board meeting?
SJ-B: yeah, it’s more like don’t screw this up, John, Rather than, I’ve got your back.
AW: It’s like, it may be the competition thing, right versus the we’re in this together.
SJ-B: When we teach improvisational skills to people that are generally in business, they tend to pick up things and go, Okay, let’s make it easier for each other. When we do like pair exercises. Salespeople tend to go, “I tried to make it hard for Steve and Steve figured it out. But I just kept making it hard for him!” It is very competitive. They’re trying to make it too… They’re trying to mess each other up. They’re often trying to find: how do I win this particular exercise? When you’re not really supposed to win them, but they do look for it. They look for the way to win an improv exercise.
AW: Like I’m the funniest and you look like an idiot.
SJ-B: Yeah, I just make you look bad. They have the opposite idea of how improv works.
SM: A lot of that comes from fear as well. I think too, right? So if in the boardroom or onstage people aren’t naturally supportive, there’s always something else going on. Improv can be a real metaphor towards where somebody is on the day. And early on in improv classes, one of the things we do teach students is that this is a safe space to be confident to take chances. And in life, we don’t always hear that, especially in the business world. If you’re new to a company and you’re getting on board and you might hear, we really want you to take chances and help you know, those thinking new ideas and may not be a company that walks the walk with that, right? Somebody might confidently share some ideas and quickly get shut down, right? So you really have to walk with that. And as you’re trying to be an improviser, one of the first skills you need to really develop is confidence and being confident to speak in public, confident to take chances in front of total strangers in an audience of people that have paid money to be there. So in that scenario, you really can only rely on the support of your fellow improvisers to get your back and that helps continue to breed more confidence. But when you’re seeing that competition or people pimping each other – in some cases, it’s just kind of in good fun. Because everybody’s been doing this a long time. It’s kind of a fun way to mess with each other. In most cases, it can be about fear or lack of confidence or something.
AW: Yes, and I’m sure when that kind of stuff happens on stage, there’s reciprocity right away.
SM: Yeah, yeah. Oh, for sure. Yeah. In some cases, like in the in the business world. If you hear people get shut down in meetings, something I often think of it, it’s okay, whatever, you’ll be okay, where you don’t take it personally or more like, you’ll be okay, yeah.
SJ-B: I want to say one thing though, I’ve actually taught an improv class at a company. So what we try to do when we’re teaching these improvisational skills to businesses is – you can’t have anybody in the room that’s not in the workshop. So you can have someone standing on the side with a clipboard, or like they – they tried to do it, they often try to do sit on the sides. AW: They’re curious?
SJ-B: I want to watch all these people actually in this scenario, and then sort of started analyzing how these people are in our company. So that’s not a very comfortable way to jump into an improv thing. And I actually had a client a couple years ago who I said, look, nobody can just be standing on the side. They have to be involved. I know you’re probably gonna make judgments, these people are going to still make judgments. They’re gonna be involved and be there. And he said, Oh, yeah, no problem, no problem. He showed up the workshop and walked up, shook my hand said, “nothing I could do. These four are going to watch.” So he ambushed me. Totally changed the tone of the room, because there’s now 20 people going, am I gonna keep my job because I made a bad offer as an improviser? So they do try to sneak in. I even had a scenario where I was teaching, the guy got fired. He got fired because his offers. They didn’t like them. And the person in the class was secretly grading people basically, and just said they would come in. And it was like Ted’s not here anymore.
AW: Wow. So basically what was happening there was their objective was completely different from what you thought the objective was. You thought it was improvisational skills.
AW: That they could then translate into real life and real work. And they were: let’s put them in this awkward situation and see who thinks and who swims.
SJ-B: That’s exactly what they’re doing. And they just thought like, Ted’s had enough warnings. He’s gone. So that was really weird and shocking, because now everyone the next day, second day was like on edge because he’s not there anymore.
AW: Is this Survivor?
SJ-B: Exactly. So that’s the completely wrong attitude to have when you’re bringing improvisers in to teach communication skills or storytelling or things like innovation. It’s like, you know, someone didn’t innovate properly. They’re fired. That’s not the right message for sure.
AW: Or they didn’t brainstorm properly. You know, they say there are no bad ideas. Well, actually, there are bad ideas.
SJ-B: Yeah, there’s that one idea Ted brought.
SM: The funny thing about building on the one idea. Funny thing about that is, oftentimes that idea is the germ for the solution everybody was looking for, but they just didn’t see it in that context on that day. And improvisers going through training programs will often say, I didn’t get a lot of stage time. Yeah, you know, and you’re like, that’s okay. Like, not everybody gets us. There’s nobody gets the equal amount of stage time you go to an improv show. Back to your earlier question. You won’t see everybody play equal number of crazy characters every night. You’ll see some people surprisingly, play a lead a lot. And some people play support, just because that’s a natural evolution of those scenes. I can remember there was one audition way back in the day, where there were a couple of people who quickly took center stage. And I was like, Well, I guess I’m just going to sweep the floor. And I ended up getting the gig because I was just the sweep the floor guy in the background and wasn’t trying to compete, but it was…
AW: Were you literally sweeping the floor?
SM: With a with a mimed broom. Mimed. But I gotta say it. I gotta say the mimed broom: that gets to object work. That’s more terminology. You’re asking me about what that would be called object work They’re objects that don’t exist.
AW: So that was gutsy though!
SJ-B: Yeah. But you stood out by taking a backseat.
AW: But you were also demonstrating that you are engaged. I love how this is going back and forth between what is only appropriate on the improv stage, then what is only really appropriate in the boardroom and understanding about the kind of implicit or tacit communication that’s going on amongst employees, right? So you need to know your audience.
SJ-B: You do really need to know your audience, which is a big part of what we’re instructing, when you’re talking improvisers for sure. And it’s like, that’s the skill that people learn when they’re doing storytelling or presentation skills. Knowing your audience is so much different, right.
AW: So there’s knowing them in advance.
AW: Being prepared, right? And then there’s also getting to know as you’re performing?
SJ-B: Absolutely, you can test an audience as you’re doing it. There’s some simple ways to test an audience. While you’re doing it. Swear once. See how that goes. Maybe do something like, maybe something that pushes the sexual envelope. See how that goes. Try certain things to do.
AW: So go through the taboos one by one?
SJ-B: Oh yeah, you just like you can filter through like four or five pretty quickly in the show. Now you can see where the audience is and where they want to go, where they don’t want to go. Because if it’s a random theater crowd, you don’t know they are until they arrive.
AW: I was watching some standup on the weekend. I think it was Kevin Hart. And he said, you know, the thing about going on stage is: everybody there wants to laugh. Well 99%?
SJ-B: Yeah, right.
AW: Well, there’s probably 1% that really is just trying to shoot you down and heckle you.
SJ-B: That’s a big part of being a performer is definitely to accept that the audience wants you to succeed. It’s just like going to an audition too. If you go to audition, the casting director wants you to succeed, because that’s makes their job a lot easier. They can pick somebody who’s going to be great.
AW: I tell that to my kids, when they’re going to tryouts. The coaches want you guys to kick butt so – go.
SJ-B: Makes their job easier.
SM: And also when you’re casting, you don’t want to sit there all day and see everybody not do well. You want to see them rock and kill it. So you want to create that environment where they’re set up to succeed. They know it’s a safe place. And you’re like, even though small little moments when somebody is coming into a casting session, or an audition ago, hey, Andrea, we’re glad you’re here today. You good? Okay. Great, have fun. It’s cool. You sweated about this audition or this scenario for at least a week, if not two, you’ve talked to 10 other people about it. There’s a lot of pressure in the industry about what this specific moment could be. But let’s put that aside and just know, hey, we’re just in this room on this day, and hopefully, you can have fun and, you know, maybe it moves forward. And if not, then maybe we’ll see you next time when it’s all good. You know, because you don’t want to be – I think in those moments, there’s this like, industry perception around the crazy audition or it’s all this pressure and that and there is. But a lot of it doesn’t need to be there. And the people who are auditioning in those scenarios or casting. They don’t want people to be in their heads or
SJ-B: No. But I would say the worst audience is if it’s your ex girlfriend, so that’s bad.
AW: Did that happen to you?
SJ-B: if you have ex girlfriends, boyfriends, ex husbands, wives… Well, yeah, for sure. And then you can tell when there’s people in the audience that just hate you. So they’re like, they just want you to be terrible.
AW: Can you share any details?
SJ-B: I only would just say like, I’ve had the experience of like, you are performing sketches or improv after your ex girlfriend’s troupe has been on and they’ve been terrible.
AW: Oh – she’s a comedian too? Oh – bad!
SJ-B: Yeah. And I’ll go on stage media to Yeah, and then you go on stage and it’s just like, they’re like, just arms crossed, like I hate this. So there are definitely those kind of scenarios where this person can’t stand me. They are here to watch me fail. They just definitely happen.
AW: So then the analogy, then back to the boardroom. Yeah, is the guy that goes up to do the pitch. And then he leaves the room and his colleague goes in to give a different pitch, and only one of the pitches is going to be accepted. Right. And so it’s a zero sum game and the thing about comedy though, is that it’s not a zero sum game. You can laugh at everybody.
SJ-B: Yeah, yeah.
SM: Yeah. That’s true.
SJ-B: Unless they broke up with you and then I just keep circling back to that. It was a long time ago. I remember this, but that did come back to me. That is an example of a bad audience member.
SM: And somebody who’s out to get you – also to your point, if you’re able to laugh at everybody. You have to start by laughing at yourself and be able to look in the mirror and go, Hey, like, I’m not perfect. I’m kind of giving it all and having a lot of fun in this scenario, and if people are doing that, they’re like, okay, I can do that as well.
AW: So there’s balancing that you said before – confidence, right? So there’s balancing the confidence with also not being too full of yourself.
SM: For sure. The confidence piece is: I’m confident in being imperfect and flawed and I will make a ton of mistakes, and I’m gonna have a lot of fun along the way. And if you want to come along for the ride, that’s cool.
SJ-B: And the audience appreciates that for sure. the honesty of like, I made a mistake. I don’t want to own it.
AW: So they say self-deprecation. It’s kind of like low hanging fruit in stand up?
SJ-B: Sure. I would agree with that. For sure it is. The greatest stories are how bad the audition went. And that’s the story you tell at the bar, right? And my wife’s an actor too. And often when she’s about to do an audition or callback or something, I’ll say, look, either have a great audition or have a great story. Just come home with something. So come back happy or come back. I gotta tell you what happened. It was so brutal.
AW: You are going to be quoted on that. That is so beautiful.
SJ-B: So much fun to have a bad audition story when it goes wrong and it’s just gold. Gold. Yeah.
AW: So and then the analogy there is when you go to do a job interview, right, and you either get the job or you have a good story.
SJ-B: because that’s exactly it. That is an audition. It’s a job interview every single time.
SM: So when you’re pitching business to use that is a contextual tie-in to improv and all this stuff we’re talking about – With pitching the business, if you’re pitching a new client, as an example, people want to see you be able to react to questions out of nowhere, think on your feet, they don’t want to see a deck for 100 slides. That’s the know your audience piece, no more than 10 slides. But they also want to know, hey, if we ask you a stumper question, or if, you know, Carol, the main boss, comes in at the last half hour, I don’t know where that you’re going to be okay. And that’s where the improv training comes in. We’re kind of in a boardroom. Like, you know, if you’re pitching business in the boardroom, and you’ve already improvised, there’s really not a lot that’s going to be potentially worse than some of these crazy situations or scenarios because it’s in an office in a protected environment. With rules and regulations.
AW: But sometimes it is high stakes and it’s got the adrenaline going and I think … you’re getting presentations and people are firing questions at you …
SJ-B: But as improvisers we often say to play the scene you’re in, not the one you want to be in. We say you play the scene you’re in not the one you want to be in.
AW: That’s a great mantra or quote as well. I love that. I love that! So and it’s also at a meta level, right? It’s the scene you’re in like, what is your life or what is your job, right? Yeah, but then there’s also I was actually thinking you were gonna say something about your kid who you thought was a goody-goody in a straight-laced A+, comes into your house – stoned. You have to play the scene you’re in.
SJ-B: Yeah, right. You can’t say like, you should be this or I thought you were this. Exactly that’s exactly it. Or it’s like, you know, you’re in this great scenario for parents. Your kid comes up, says I’m gay. Play the scene you’re in, and not the one you want to be in. Right. So it was kind of scenarios or I don’t want to go to college – play the scene you’re in.
SM: That’s a great point and tying the play the scene you’re in piece, along with what you’re saying, Andrea, about answering tough questions or being in a corporate scenario or being in the hot seat. There’s another piece of lingo which is really simple. A phrase called Thank you, which we use all the time, where if a tough question comes up, and … say you’re pitching business, and if somebody asks you a really tough question, you go, thanks for the question. That immediately defuses any sort of anxiety you might have just by a little bit. It gives you two seconds to think about your answer. And it also tells the group, you’re cool with it. It just level sets everything. It’s a little piece of jujitsu in those high pressure situations. Let you go, let’s you say, Oh, thanks for that. Okay. Well, here’s what I think.
AW: I think you gotta be careful with the tone though, the way you’re saying it is very, like great, right?
SJ-B: Thank you, Diane. Wow, okay. Wow, thank you for that I was in a flow, but you’ve just stopped it for your question.
SM: Thank you for that soul killing question. Yeah, yeah, but you’re right, like a genuine thanks. In that moment. Taking time to connect with a person helps diffuse any sort of pressure you might have. It also just gives you a chance to sit with it for a second. Versus going, Oh, well, well, well. And I think it’s those micro moments that make everybody else feel at ease in business situation. So if the power goes out or if the deck doesn’t work. So it’s like, Hey, if you’re presenting, don’t take the hundred slides, it’s a follow up like, it’s a big win to go into a business pitch and just have a conversation with somebody – that’s improvised. Obviously, you have to keep the train on time, you have to get your points across, you have to have a beginning, middle and end to a conversation. But the same time if you don’t hit slide 49, literally nobody cares. And a lot of people put a lot of pressure on themselves, to have that script in hand, because they may not have just the comfort of having a real conversation, where they might have the pressure of getting all these ideas across when you really could do that over a longer period.
AW: I just have to say I feel like you’re speaking to me, the podcast host that has the list of questions in front of her. I’m trying really hard not to look at it.
SJ-B: this, this is actually your intervention and I hope you appreciate it. It’s gonna get really tough for you in about 10 minutes, but we’re just easing into the real intervention. Okay. I have a letter from your child here. Dear Mom. No, I think…
SM: What copy would you like? Yeah.
SJ-B: That is such a true point to say thank you. I would say one thing that is a gift when people have a question, everyone else might be thinking it. And I and oftentimes when you pitch to a boardroom of people, and no one asked the question you leave there and like, I don’t really understand that. I didn’t want to ask a question, but I don’t understand it. So moving on, that at least gets that they’re interested in engaging and clarified. I think that’s a gift to people. That’s what I think. You should be genuine.
SM: You’re really good at asking that. You say that quite often on calls and meetings. You’re great at that. You’ll say I have a question that everybody else might have. But I’m fine to ask it. Yeah. What time do we have to be there tomorrow? Whatever it is, right? Because then everybody goes, thank you for asking the question that was on everybody’s mind.
AW: I’ve actually seen that in board meetings when somebody asks something and you physically see people go, Oh, yeah, thank goodness. So then if you are the one that’s on stage and you explicitly thank them, then it kind of really just reinforces that you’re putting everybody at ease.
SJ-B: Well, if you say thank you to a suggestion from the audience as an improviser, they’re going to give you more suggestions later. But if they give you a suggestion, and you’re like, really? okay, fine! We’ll go to a gas station. They’re never going to give suggestion at any improv show. Humiliated you’re, you’re embarrassed.
SM: Hundred percent. That’s something we see with newer improvisers a lot when we’re teaching is, let’s say, Hey, can I get a suggestion for location? Paris? No. Not that. Then they’re like okay, then forget it. Never mind.
SJ-B: Now everybody’s got it?
AW: So that’s going against the YES AND.
AW: you don’t say no, you always say yes.
SJ-B: And yeah, absolutely.
AW: And where in Paris? In the market?
SJ-B: Yeah, you can push it for sure. You can totally say that. Like, let’s shrink it down a little bit. You can totally do that. But you can’t just say no, we’re not going to Paris.
SM: If you don’t want a specific suggestion. By the way. There’s a trick that a lot of improvisers use called burning a suggestion. Oh, kind of a backstage thing where you’ll say, Can I get a suggestion for a location? Like a Starbucks or a bathroom? And so if you don’t want a specific suggestion you put in in the ask. So can I get a suggestion for character name – like Sandy?
SM: Then if someone says Sandy, then you’re like something besides that, then you’re creating this agreement with the audience that you’ve already suggested a couple of examples already. Yes. Usually when you’re doing somebody these shows we asked for location. Everybody will always say a Starbucks or a bathroom. If it’s someone famous it’s Donald Trump.
SJ-B: Yeah, it’s really Starbucks or a bathroom or if its someone famous it’s Donald Trump. So you want to say like someone famous like Donald Trump, then you just burn that you don’t have to do it and it’s out there. It’s a great idea. Yes.
SM: You don’t want to do a scene about Donald Trump. Nobody needs to see it. We’re seeing it every day. We don’t need to see a scene of a famous person like Donald Trump or Jesus. So when you’re doing work for ..
AW: Does Jesus come up a lot?
SJ-B: That’s right, you’re agnostic or was it you know, like, you would never talk with Jesus. That’s your thing, right?
SM: I would talk about it.
SJ-B: You just covered politics and religion.
SM: That’s exactly it. Things you don’t want to do in some unknown audiences or corporate audiences you don’t want to ever tackle politics or religion. Because in those scenarios in like when we’re getting ready for these shows will usually ask the planners, when we say something who’s everybody going to look at to see if it’s okay to laugh? Yeah. And they’ll say, Carol. Great. Can we get Carol on a call?
AW: That is a question!
SM: We’ll often ask that, and then they’re usually a really honest with us and they’ll say, you know, because they’ll, they’ll often say, we really want you to push the envelope, we really want you guys to kind of go for it. They may, they may,… but they may not know what that necessarily means. So really, pushing the envelope might be something super, super offensive, or unplanned or unknown for this one company, right? Yeah, we usually just say, who’s everybody gonna look at to see if it’s okay to laugh? And we get that person on a call or to sign off on the actual content. And then if they’re in on it, then the show goes way, way better.
SJ-B: Oh, yeah, definitely.
AW: Uh huh. Okay, let’s move on. What is it or what are the things that comedians do that makes them so great when they’re on the stage? Is it for example? (And now you’re going to have to say its NOT that!) Is it filling awkward silences? Is it creating awkward silences? Is it taking people outside of their comfort zone?
SJ-B: Honesty. For me is key. Honesty is always key. So doing things that people relate to. You can have an entire scene is just a simple activity that everyone does and that can kill because everyone goes, Oh, I can relate to that. That’s exactly how it would be. There’s a famous scene in Second City called “Shower,” where it’s a guy just having a shower when he washes his penis… Anyway, the crowd goes crazy because they’re like, Man, that’s his shower. All he’s doing is having a shower. And it’s funny, but that’s a very honest thing. Honesty would be really big.
SM: Yeah, knowing who you are and having fun with that, I think is a understanding of who you are as a performer and as a person and being okay with it. I am a tall, lanky, dorky person who likes to do math on the weekends. So like that’s …
AW: Aren’t you a dorky scientist in a commercial right now?
SM: I play dorky scientist in a commercial, which is a dream come true. I just show up in my own labcoat. With my own clipboard. Yeah.
AW: I can’t unsee that when I look at you.
SM: Thank you for saying that, because it’s actually just like it is on the weekends. No, but it’s like, I think it’s, we think of like delightful people – who we love seeing on stage, they’re just having a blast every night. They’re laughing, they’re there to have fun and to play. So there’s a play element in that that should be fun. It should be relaxed and chill and rewarding and that kind of thing as well. But it should also be fun. So when you’re seeing people like being honest, they know who they are, but they’re also having a lot of fun with that. That’s something it’s really hard to learn over time. Because I think when you’re coming up as an improviser, you’re like, I want to be exactly like this person, and I’m going to grow up to be the next so and so and so and so or whatever, but then you’re like, no, it’s like, I’m just gonna do my thing, then a lot of stuff unlocks. And the audiences respond to a lot more. Then you become more comfortable with not having to be all things to all people. I think the confidence thing you’re talking about with like not being too polished, and I’m super confident guy, you what I mean?
SJ-B: Yeah. I think comedians are also successful if they are respectful of the audience. They know what the audience wants. Certainly when a comedian starts to freak out on some audience member – we’ve seen – that’s happened. The audience all hates that. No one likes that. Or if there’s someone heckling, they take care of it the right way. And I also think a very important part of being successful in comedy is knowing when the show is over. Time is everything and leaving them wanting more, of course, is an old saying, but it’s very true. And a lot of comedians lose the show because they go too long.
AW: I feel like all of these things that you guys are listing are all lessons in life.
SM: They are.
SJ-B: Yeah, maybe they are. Yeah, exactly. Know when to leave the party. Right? That was the Johnny Carson phrase, which was, I left the Tonight Show because you got to know when to leave the party. So when you’re actually at a party? Yep, there’s 10 people left. I don’t want to be the last guy. Yeah, I’m going to leave now that that’s a really important thing. That’s exactly what it is. When you’re pitching something, make it short, make it get to the point then get out of there.
AW: Make them curious about what else you can do?
SM: And one other one that I have to throw in as well is empathy. And so people who are really good improvisers, I feel like are really empathetic and they’re just good human beings. And they might be like, that’s a really good person. That is because they’re really great listeners. They’re really empathetic. I see that in the business world all the time. And people don’t have that extra dose of empathy. So improv really teaches you that – like seeing something from somebody else’s perspective. Or just knowing – it’s not all about this show. We also want to be good people in like life yeah, we want to be good people. Yeah so, I think that’s the thing like in business and comedy and improv in life is like, are you just focusing on making the other person look better? Are you focusing on trying to do a little better for the world everyday versus a little worse for the world? And if you are, then you’re successfully improvising.
AW: That’s right. What are the skills that the employers are looking to train their staff in when they hire you?
SJ-B: They want to break down silos and get people talking to each other and but that’s a big one right away is like how do we get everyone talking to each other.
AW: So it’s social?
SM: I think you’re right about it. The core is talking to each other. Yeah. And communication. Like that’s probably the base. I think if you’re looking for extensions or like some tentacles, right? Like the big hydra, this would be. You’d have change management or effective brainstorming, presentation skills, storytelling. Every company in the planet on a first call will always, always, always, always say – without hesitation – we’re going through a lot of change. So everybody’s always going through a lot of and people don’t like it. They don’t like it. Yeah. So how do we deal with that? So change management, when you’re improvising, you’re literally dealing with change on the fly in front of audiences on the spot. So how can we unpack those skills and teach them to people who work in offices every single day, so that they manage change more effectively? So change management’s a big thing.
AW: Okay, I need to be mindful. And I want to get to the five rapid fire questions. But before I do that, do you have anything else that you want to add about improv and thinking and talking on your feet?
SM: The other thing I would add is thank you for having us. It’s been fun. It’s fun to hear what both of you guys have to say about this. In terms of thinking or talking on your feet. I guess I would add that there’s really no right or wrong.
SJ-B: Exactly right. Everything that’s right or wrong is an offer. In fact, the mistakes are where the best comedy comes from – always. The mistakes are so golden and so many great sketches and improv scenes come from mistakes. So being afraid to make mistakes is the worst thing you can do. Be free to fail and fail fast and all those things they say but: go be terrible if you have to. And as some people say, just dare to suck. Yeah.
AW: because then you have story material.
SJ-B: Oh my God, that’s the best stories.
AW: Okay, now I’m going to fire the five rapid fire questions at you.
AW: Okay, so Sandy Jovan-Bevin. What are your pet peeves?
SJ-B: Where do I start? Oh my gosh, I have so many pet peeves. Well, currently, my pet peeve is the cat down the street that keeps crapping on my lawn. But that’s not really a universal pet peeve. I think one of my biggest pet peeves is when I go to pitch doing a show or teaching and someone starts off a meeting and says, You know, I don’t like comedy, but what do you guys gonna do? That’s an incredible thing because I’m so sad for that person. And just like, you’re just my golden moment there would have been just you have a sad life and then end the meeting. That’s a big pet peeve to kick off by saying I don’t like comedy.
SM: We’ve actually heard that now.
SJ-B: Oh, yeah, several times. Yeah. I don’t like comedy.
AW: Does that mean I don’t like to laugh?
SJ-B: Yeah, no. I don’t like to live. Like, what kind of life is that? It’s crazy. That’s my pet peeve.
AW: Okay, Sandy Marshall?
SM: My pet peeve is when people don’t do what they say they’re going to do. So if they’re going to email you by Friday, and they don’t email by Friday. I just don’t understand it. I think being non committal. Sandy will attest to this. I think it’s when people actually just don’t get back on email. Like how could you not get back on email? Like we’re, we’re rocking on this thing. We’re rocking on this email thread.
AW: There’s a lot of people that have a lot email issues.
SJ-B: Wow. Interesting.
AW: There are people that in my close circle of friends that have over 14,000 unread emails in their inbox. Can you imagine?
SJ-B: No, that’s
SM: Yeah, I honestly want my gravestone to literally – I wanted to read at least he got back on email.
SJ-B: It’s noted.
SM: Thank you.
AW: I have a paper for you to read. Okay, great. Sandy Marshall again, what type of learner are you?
SM: Probably I learned most by doing something. Probably a physical learner by performing or teaching or direct.
SJ-B: I learn most by making mistakes. So if I screw up I generally learn from that mistake. If I’m doing things great, I don’t learn anything from it.
AW: Next question. Introvert or extrovert?
SJ-B: Extrovert. Totally.
AW: Hundred percent?
SJ-B: Oh, yeah. It was no doubt.
AW: and Sandy Marshall?
SM: I would say introvert. I think I can dial up the extraversion when I need to. But you know, looking at what extroverts might get versus introverts to recharge the battery. I get my battery recharged by reading books over the weekend.
SJ-B: You said earlier you do math on the weekends.
SM: I do math on the weekends.
AW: You’re just a total nerd on the weekends.
SJ-B: On the weekends?
SM: Thanks! How do we all really feel? Let’s have this be the intervention.
SJ-B: I’ll bet a lot of stand-up communities are introverts for sure. And that’s why they just get so freaked out after shows when everyone comes over to talk to them because they’re like they’re just really want to go home now. Yeah, it’s like paralyzing almost.
AW: That’s really interesting is it? We shouldn’t make assumptions about a person’s personality based on how they’re acting in front of the class or in front of the boardroom or on stage.
SJ-B: Absolutely not.
AW: The next question is: communication preference for personal conversations. Sandy Marshall?
SM: In person. I always like in person over phone or email. I’ve do a lot of work over the phone, a lot of work over the email, but I really like in-person.
SJ-B: Completely agree. In person.
AW: They’re both looking at me with their heads nodding.
SJ-B: Next. This is Rapid Fire!
AW: Last question. Is there a podcast or blog or an email newsletter that you find yourself recommending the most?
SJ-B: You have to listen to Dexter Guff is Smarter Than You. I think that’s the smartest, best podcast that’s out there right now. Dexter Guff. Please check it out.
AW: I will.
SM: I completely agree. It is really actually, I think it’s the funniest podcast out there.
AW: Oh, I am definitely gonna listen to it.
SJ-B: so start from the beginning because it has an overall arc that happens through the whole thing.
AW: So okay, I’ll put a link to the shownotes so the listeners can also check it out. Is there anything else you want to add about improv and thinking and talking on your feet?
SM: Tuning in to how many times you hear yes or no, during the day or in your own language is interesting. I think something from our side of the table that we can hear after a while is when people tend to say no a lot. It’s kind of, you know, we’re sort of our antennas up to it. Just pay attention to how often you’re saying yes, and how often you’re saying no. Conversely, there’s a really good book about saying no, called Essentialism by Greg McCowan. It’s one of my favorite books. It’s a business book, but it’s all about setting up clear boundaries. So when you get into improv obviously, like Sandy was saying, you have to keep the train on time, know when the show is over. So you have to have fixed boundaries as well. So looking at when no can also be effective in life is really useful because if you say yes to everything on the planet, you’re just gonna, you’re not gonna get anything done. So you have to kind of balance both of those. But, you know, listening when you say yes or no was interesting.
SJ-B: I have absolutely nothing else to add. Thank you.
AW: Except a little laugh.
AW: Thank you so much for sharing your time and your expertise, and I had fun.
SJ-B: We had a blast. I’m speaking for me.
SM: I had a blast as well. Sandy. Thanks for having us, Andrea.
AW: My face actually hurts from smiling.
SM: Okay, good. Thanks for having us. What type of what type of learner are you? Are you audio? visual?
AW: Definitely visual.
SM: I think we need to hear your rapid fire on the podcast.
SJ-B: That’s right
SM: At some point. Maybe next time.
Gosh, I do hope there will be a next time. That was fun, wasn’t it? Thank you, Sandy & Sandy! To be honest, I learned more in that interview than I thought. I knew it would be fun, but I had no idea we could learn so much from improv that can be applied off the stage!
To summarize our learnings, I categorized some of the things that Sandy & Sandy suggested in terms of 3 things: preparation, content and tone of an improv performance.
- At the very beginning, Sandy Marshall said, “improv comedy, at its core, is about listening and thinking on your feet.” In order to be able to truly listen and think on your feet, say, when you’re giving a presentation or teaching something or participating in a meeting, you need to be well-prepared. Then, you can focus on the moment, on what’s going on in the room. That’s the essence of Improv, right? So preparation and confidence are key.
- If you’re not feeling so confident, I heard something from Sandy-Jobin-Bevans that helps a lot. Consider this: when you go to an audition, or a job interview, or a sales pitch, you either nail it or – you have a great story. It turns out mistakes are where the best comedy comes from. But it goes beyond comedy, right? We’ve all heard the stories about how incredibly accomplished people learned from their failures. SO – don’t be afraid of failure. In fact, there’s no such thing
- The next thing in terms of preparation is knowing your audience. Starting with – who will be in the room? Remember Sandy & Sandy said that you can’t have anybody in the room that’s not in the workshop. The learning here is to know what everyone’s role is in the room.
- They also made a great suggestion. Ask in advance, who will everyone look at? “Who is everyone going to look at to see if it’s ok to laugh?” If possible set up a meeting in advance with that person to get them onside, and that will help everything flow.
Now, related to knowing your audience and moving into the content of your improv skit or your presentation, there’s getting to know your audience in the moment – testing them.
- There’s some simple ways to test an audience, while you’re on stage literally or figuratively, Comedians will try a few taboos – sexuality, politics, religion,… see where they want to go. Swear once. And see what happens.
- In terms of content, the Sandys are big proponent of preparing the 100 slide deck in advance but then having an improvised conversation. Obviously, you have to keep the train on time, you have to get your points across, you have to have a beginning, middle and end to a conversation. But the same time if you don’t hit slide 49, literally nobody cares.
- Speaking of Slide 49 – there’s TIMING. Timing is critical when you’re onstage. But timing is critical in much of what we do. So whether you’re on stage, delivering a sales pitch, or at a late might party, we need to know when the show is over (and leave them wanting more)
- Here’s another big one: play the scene you’re in, not the one you want to be in. This is a core tenet of improv. I love it. Play the scene you’re in is a beautiful reminder in real life – to be in the moment.
- Successful improv comedians respect the audience
- That means using Empathy. That means listening and being a good human, as Sandy Marshall said
- And Sandy Jobin-Bevans talked about the power of honesty and simplicity.
- In terms of TONE, the point about COMPETITION vs COOPERATION is a huge one in Improv. Did you notice how that kept coming up?
- For much of what we do offstage, or IRL, it’s a zero sum game. When someone gets the job or the promotion, that means someone else does not. It’s competitive. The thing about comedy, and particularly improv, is that it’s not a zero sum game. You can laugh at everybody.
- If you’re competing as an improviser, as Sandy Jobin-Bevans says, you might end up just doing standup, not Improv. Improv comedians act as a team. Remember the pre-show ritual? “Got your back. Got your back, got your back.” Can you imagine the creativity and productivity that might result if we really acted as if we had our co-workers backs?
- IRL, people are often competitive and confrontational. Sandy Marshall suggests that if someone is confrontational, diffuse it with Thanks for the Q. So if a tough question comes up, and … say you’re pitching business, and if somebody asks you a really tough question, just say thanks for the question. And say it sincerely. It gives you a minute to think about your answer and it calms the room. Sandy calls it a little piece of jujitsu in those high pressure situations.
- When it comes to competition, there’s also the “Pimping” Do you remember that one? That’s when you DON’T want to play a part in a skit, so you assign it to someone. You can probably imagine burning a suggestion in a meeting, by suggesting someone takes on some task that you don’t want. Or maybe that might happen to you. At least you have a name for it now!
- Do you remember the core tenet of improv that the Sandy’s shared called YES AND? So, using the word yes to build on an idea that somebody else is offering something. Yes is I heard your offer, and then and is I build on that offer. SO when someone in a meeting suggests something, try responding with “Yes, And.”
- And THAT leads me to the last point. Count your YESs and Nos. Tuning in to how many times you hear yes or no, during the day or in your own language is a powerful way to gauge tone.
Phew. I told you there was a lot to learn from Sandy and Sandy. If you want to review these learnings from the improv stage, they are all listed succinctly in the shownotes. For me, two things stood out the most are the YES AND and the fact that when you’re pitching something, either you rocked it, you succeeded, or you come away with a great story. I love that.
Which of these learnings resonated most for you? I’d love to hear. Please connect with me via social media or email me at [email protected].
If you’re into learning more about how to improve your communication skills, I encourage you to sign up for the FREE weekly TalkAboutTalk email blog. Every week, you’ll learn about the latest TalkAboutTalk podcast, behind the scenes insights, inspiring quotes, and other things I’ve found that will help us improve our communication skills. You can sign up easily on the talkabouttalk website or shoot me an email and I’ll sign you up myself.
Thanks again to Sandy Marshall and Sandy Jobin-Bevans for sharing their expertise and encouraging us to laugh.
THANKS for listening!
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