Applying Improv Principles for Professional Growth

Unlocking Academic Potential

As an educator, I’m always searching for techniques to enhance my performance in the classroom and better engage with students. Reading Dan Diggles’ book “Improv for Actors” sparked insights into how the fundamental principles of improv can be creatively adapted and applied to the realm of academic professional development.

“There are three rules to good improvisation.
Say the first thing that comes into your head
Say, ‘Yes! And …’ to all your partner’s offers
Make your partner look good.

– Dan Diggles

While Diggles’ book is primarily geared towards actors, the core tenets he outlines have surprising relevance and value for academics looking to grow as educators and professionals. The three key rules of improv he presents are: 1) Say “Yes, and…”, 2) Say the first thing that comes to mind, and 3) Make your partner look good. Embracing these mindsets can be game-changing in an academic context.

Saying “Yes, and…” is about building upon ideas rather than blocking them. In an educational setting, this translates to validating students’ contributions and using them as launching points for deeper exploration, nurturing an environment of collaboration and collective knowledge-building. But this principle can also be powerfully applied to interactions with colleagues. Imagine if in faculty meetings or collaborative projects, we actively sought to build on each other’s ideas rather than tearing them down. Practicing “Yes, and…” with fellow academics, even in informal improv exercises, can ingrain this habit of affirmative and generative communication.

The “say the first thing” rule is about trusting our instincts and believing that our unique experiences have gifted us with valuable perspectives to contribute. As instructors, this could mean allowing for more extemporaneity, weaving in personal stories, and letting our individual viewpoints enrich our teaching. However, it’s crucial to clarify that this doesn’t mean blurting out incorrect information or unsubstantiated opinions. Rather, it’s about tapping into relevant anecdotes and examples that can illuminate the material, while still ensuring factual accuracy. Practicing storytelling exercises can help academics become more adept at this kind of engaging, off-the-cuff communication.

Making your partner look good is an act of generosity and support. In teaching, this means keeping students’ growth and success at the heart of our efforts, providing the scaffolding and opportunities for them to stretch themselves and shine. But this ethic of lifting up others can also revolutionize our professional relationships. Imagine a departmental culture where everyone is committed to making their colleagues look good – sharing resources, offering constructive feedback, celebrating each other’s wins. Academics can hone this skill through improv exercises like “Expert’s Game” (where the goal is to make your partner seem like an expert in whatever subject they’re speaking about), and then carry that spirit of support into their daily professional interactions.

Some specific action items academics can take to apply improv principles to their professional development:

  1. Organize improv workshops or regular improv practice sessions with colleagues to build “Yes, and…” muscles and develop comfort with spontaneity.
  2. Start faculty meetings or collaborative sessions with short improv games to set a tone of building on each other’s ideas.
  3. Challenge yourself to include at least one relevant personal anecdote or illustrative example in each lecture to make content more relatable and engaging for students.
  4. When giving feedback on a colleague’s work, make a conscious effort to find ways to build on their ideas before offering critique.
  5. Initiate a departmental practice of publicly celebrating each other’s professional accomplishments and milestones.
  6. Incorporate “make your partner look good” exercises into student training to foster a culture of lifting each other up.

Disclaimer: While improv techniques can add spontaneity and engagement to teaching, it’s important to underscore that educators should never sacrifice accuracy for improvisation. Extemporaneous stories and examples should always be in service of clarifying course content, not contradicting or replacing it.

By thoughtfully applying improv principles to an academic setting, educators can become more dynamic, supportive, and innovative – not just in their teaching but in all aspects of their professional lives. While Diggles may not have had academia in mind when penning his book, the insights within can nonetheless help academics unleash their full creative and collaborative potential, while still maintaining the rigor and precision essential to scholarly work.

Improv for Actors by Dan Diggles