3 Unusual networking lessons I’ve learned from improv

networking lessons

By Mars Dorian, {grow} Contributing Columnist

The grrreat peak and performance coach Tony Robbins once said, “If you want to get results no one’s getting, you have to do things no one’s doing.”

To power up his statement, Tony mentioned golf-giant Tiger Woods lifting weights(!) to up his game.

Golfers lifting weights? Wasn’t normal, that’s why Tiger got abnormal results. Meow.

I took his advice to heart and looked for ‘unusual’ methods to boost my networking skills. Inhaling blog posts and how-to books wasn’t enough, so I asked my folks in town. An American friend swooned over a guy from San Francisco who had once been working for Cirque de Soleil. She said the man was a creative genius improv teacher that had helped her become a bad-ass communicator.

I was hooked.

But since I didn’t know much about improv, I watched a couple of Youtube videos and saw a bunch of guys and gals acting like young Jim Carrey tripping on illegal substances. I thought, who are these clowns Nevertheless, I tried a local two-hour session with my friend in Berlin and my mind was blown.

Below, I reveal my top three networking lessons I’ve learned from doing improv…

1) Embrace the three circle strategy

My improv teacher introduced me to a theatre technique that works in every situation where you want to connect with an audience, even if it’s just one person. In short: the first circle is the passive mode where you stand like a frozen tree and just absorb what everyone else is saying. Picture an introvert and shy artist being an incredible listener but too afraid to speak up.

I’ll get to the second circle in a sec.

In the third circle, you exude energy. You walk in and light up the room. Speak with fire and dominate your space. Lots of extrovert self-marketers excel at that. It can be effective, but it also comes across as self-centered and domineering, because there’s no place for the partner. He or she feels getting preached to.

In the second circle lies the magic.

Here, you mix the first with the third.

Say what you want about Donald Trump, but even his comedian arch nemesis Bill Maher admitted he was a good listener. When Trump speaks, he goes full third circle. Speaks with vigor and gestures wildly. But when he’s in a private conversation, he apparently only focuses on you and asks you questions, making you feel like you’re the center of the world.

Lesson: Know when to listen with utmost care and when to present yourself with passion. Most people either do the former or latter, you will learn to master both. Remember the second circle. Remember the balance.

2) Be a “Yes” (wo)man

The improv teacher wanted to break our rigid behavior and introduced us to the “Yes, and…” game. Here, someone offers you a premise and no matter how ridiculous it sounds, you have to accept the invitation and add information in a positive matter.

I’ll give you an example.

A woman during the sessions came up to me and said,

“Mars, let’s go to Mars with my new spaceship.”

My first reaction was negative. I thought that sentence made no sense. But that was my closed mind speaking. A second later, I accepted the invitation and added information.

“Yes, and we take your mother Jill with us. She’s been a lifelong fan of red planet movies and will be the first grandmother to ever set foot on Mars.”

It was a made-up answer, but the goal was to add information in a positive matter. Despite the simple rules, half of the people in the session either added a negative response (no, we can’t do that), or didn’t add any new information, or worse, didn’t say anything at all. This showed me how stuck up and closed our minds were. A deal breaker when building business relationships.

Lesson: in a business negotiation, we are quick to shut down requests or ideas we don’t agree with. That’s when I encourage you to remember the ‘Yes, and…” game. If someone comes up with a request you can’t deliver or disagree with, think “yes and…” see what happens:

“Do you think you can create a positive, corporate logo with a lower budget?”

I may not be able to do it myself, but that doesn’t mean the interaction ends.

“(Yes, and…) I may know some people who can help you with that.”

3) Spontaneity breeds rapport

My improv teacher, in his most polite SoCal style, once said,“Mars, get out of your damn head.”

What he meant was that I constantly focused on giving the best performance as I tried coming up with witty and funny stories in advance. It kicked me out of the moment and cut rapport because I was in my head and not with my partner. Thanks, Mr. Miyagi.

Improv is all about spontaneity.

The teacher said I should concentrate on my partner exclusively, eying her body language, focusing on what she said and how she said it.

First circle behavior which most folks, even pros, do wrong.

If you’re watching the primaries in the States, you see a lack of spontaneity on both sides of the parties.

Some candidates sound like robots with canned responses, or worse, canned behavior. You watch them deliver their lines with precision and feel awkward, because it’s unnatural. Like it’s a setup instead of a genuine conversation. Like you’re dealing with a puppet that cares more about their performance than about your needs. Learning to become spontaneous makes you come alive in a dialogue, because you’re in the moment, fully present.

Lesson: I followed the spontaneity advice at my last online entrepreneur event. A speaker talked about building his online travel app from scratch and mentioned his personal development journey, including a trip to a Chinese Shaolin temple where he had trained. After the talk, I approached the entrepreneur all networking style and wanted to unleash my unusual biz questions, “blah blah…how much did you raise, how did you build connections…” etc.

But since I had focused on his talk and watched his body language opening up during the Shaolin part, I tossed the standard approach and asked him what the best part of his one month temple experience was. Boy, the man’s eyes glowed as he swooned over sparse rice meals with veggies, hours of meditating in the early morning on the mountain and hardcore training discipline that even eight year old kids went through. We built instant rapport, exchanged biz cards and parted on a high.

Lessons learned.

While the audience around me was listening with half an ear, looking down and fumbling with their phones like trained monkeys, I tuned out everyone and everything but the speaker.

So, instead of sounding like two pre-scripted marketing bots auto-pitching at each other, being spontaneous, you build a genuine connection, which can be the basis of a grrreat biz relationship, or even better, friendship.

Conclusion

Being a good communicator is the alpha and omega of building business relationships. Tony Robbins is right when he says that unusual methods lead to unusual results. Improv has helped me heaps with building deeper connections with potential clients and partners.

If you’ve ever participated in improv or another theatre discipline, share your favorite lesson that you apply to connecting and networking.

mars dorian
Mars Dorian draws funky illustrations and pens sci-fi thrillers for the Internet Generation. His latest novel is available on Amazon for just $2.99! Consider his artwork for your next project: http://www.marsdorian.com
Original illustration by the author.
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  • matt hill

    nice post . . it immediately reminded me of Tina Fey’s Bossypants, where she discusses improve rules and applies them to life . . that section of the book has been picked up and blogged about quite a bit since, so you may have seen it .. I’ll paste below . . kudos!

    The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

    Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

    As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?

    The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

    To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.

    The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.

    In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who says things like “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up!” and “I felt menaced when Terry raised her voice.”

    MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements, with your actions and your voice.

    Instead of saying “Where are we?” make a statement like “Here we are in Spain, Dracula.” Okay, “Here we are in Spain, Dracula” may seem like a terrible start to a scene, but this leads us to the best rule:

    THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

    *Improv will not reduce belly fat

    -From Bossypants

  • Absolutely Mars! IMHO, learning effective communications is by far the single most important business strategy. With out them, nothing else one decides to accomlish will be truly successful.

  • Kyle Akerman

    Hi Mars,

    I’m glad you discovered the power of improv. I started taking classes a few years ago and it has changed my life.

    At its core improv teaches how to be a good communicator. But those skills are never taught in school. So most people are horrible at being present and focusing on their conversation partner (whether in a social or business setting).

    Improv is also a ton of fun because you learn how to play. I tell everyone I meet to take an improv class 🙂

    Cheers,
    Kyle

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