Nov. 5, 2009 -- 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.
Embrace the Unexpected
"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."
In Job Interview, as in Improv, Listen in the Moment
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.
"Interviewers are not looking for resume bullet points," Brady said. "They want to hear about how you succeeded in different situations."
In other words, they want to hear you spin a really good yarn -- but they want it to have a discernible beginning, middle and end.
In a Job Interview, Forget About Looking Foolish
"The key to improv is making sure that you're willing to look like a total moron," Martin joked with the half-dozen students in attendance that night.
Clearly they took the message to heart. Within the hour, most of them were writhing on the floor like housecats in heat. But as ridiculous as they looked, they were also convincing.
"The more you perform in front of a group of people, the more you loosen up," Brady said. "It's a confidence builder."
But being bolder, braver and more upbeat in interviews aren't the only benefits students said they'd gained from the class. You can also come off looking like a star at work.
"Thinking quickly on my feet and speaking more fluidly when the spotlight's on me in meetings has been a big benefit," said Linda, a marketing manager in the class who's often asked to provide off-the-cuff project updates at her job.
Besides, she said, "If the worst happens and you lose your job and have to look for a new one, you want to be more resilient."
For Tony, a software program manager who's currently looking for work, the confidence boost and enhanced communication skills weren't the only perks of taking the class.
"Because I'm unemployed, I usually don't get to talk to people during the day," he said. "The nice thing about this class is it gets me out and interacting with others."
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see Anti9to5Guide.com.