Move over, Rotary Club. Take a hike, Toastmasters.
There's a new venue for professionals looking to hone their communication chops: their friendly neighborhood improv class.
How can theater games help job seekers ace their interviews? And what exactly do improvisational comedy skits have in common with the traditional business meeting?
To find out, I recently sat in on "Improv(e) Your Business Skills," a six-week improv course offered by Seattle's Taproot Theatre Company.
"In our society, we're taught to fear the unexpected," said instructor Kevin Brady, who teaches the Taproot class with fellow improv actor Rob Martin. "We associate the unexpected with car accidents, hot water tanks exploding or someone getting sick."
With such an upbeat mindset, it's no wonder so many of us have come to dread job interviews.
Enter improv, which teaches performers to fly blind and work without a script, much like a job hunter in the interview seat.
But improv isn't just about thinking on your feet within a scene, Brady said. It's about being receptive to the unknown and always saying "Yes, and ..." when a fellow actor comes up with an idea onstage.
For example, Brady said, "If you're in a scene and someone says, 'This is an excellent barbershop you run here' and you say, 'Yes, and I have an excellent hair coloring service,' it leads to more opportunities to expand the scene."
The idea is to avoid looking at an improv scene as a "me against them" situation ("them" being the other actors in the scene, or the audience). When it comes to job interviews, adopting this mentality can also be a game changer, Brady said.
"If you approach it as, 'This is an opportunity for me to perform well for this person and to enjoy myself,' instead of it being 'me against this interviewer,' it can only help," he said.
Incidentally, learning to build on the ideas of others instead of merely being married to your own is a helpful skill for those already employed. As Brady points out, telling a coworker, "That's a great suggestion, and we could also add Feature X to that service," will get you much further in brainstorming sessions than the usual, "Good idea, but listen to what I came up with."
If you've ever interviewed for a job, you know giving your interviewer your undivided attention is much harder than it sounds. Either you're kicking yourself for some boneheaded answer or you're trying to guess what the next question will be.
This doesn't fly in improv, where "active listening" and going with the proverbial flow is mandatory. You may walk onstage prepared to depict a shopkeeper trying to pacify a disgruntled customer. But depending on what your fellow actors say and do, there's a decent chance you'll wind up running around the stage trying to lure an imaginary mouse into an imaginary trap with an oversized wheel of cheese and a lullaby sung in pig Latin.
"One of the most important parts of improv is to really listen to your scene partner onstage," Brady said. "That concept is such great training for an interview."
Of course, listening is only half the interview equation. On the night I attended Brady and Martin's class, students brushed up on their storytelling skills, too. Although their tales were of wood nymphs hooked on pickle sandwiches and cell phone-wielding, daiquiri-drinking salamanders, they learned to convey a conflict and a resolution -- quickly and credibly.