Why Improvisation Is a Crucial Business Skill (and How to Become Better at It)

Why Improvisation Is a Crucial Business Skill (and How to Become Better at It)

photo by Tom Magliery

Jazz musicians know how to do it. So do comedians. Salespeople? Not so much.

The art of improvising and thinking on your feet could be the best sales lesson you ever learn. That's why we asked Randy Sabourin, a business improvisation specialist, to share his expertise with our TGIM listeners.

In this interview, you'll:

  • Find out how improvisation can help you close more sales
  • Discover the four-step process to becoming a better improvisor
  • Learn two places where people often fail when it comes to improvisation

Check out the full 8-minute interview below:

Want to hear more? Listen to the rest of episode six now.

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Male Narrator: "What do the world's best athletes, jazz musicians, and entertainers all have in common? They know how to improvise, to think on their feet. As it turns out, improvisation is a valuable skill for entrepreneurs too."

Male Narrator: "It's Wednesday night and I am gathered with about 40 other entrepreneurs, for something most of us have never done before. I'm taping some of this for a podcast, just so you know."

Randy: "What we're going to do is pass attention by clapping, pointing, and saying each other's names. I'd like the pace to be about ba, ba, ba, ba."

Male Narrator: "We are at a business improv class, and even though we all knew it would be interactive, all the clapping, and naming, and passing attention, feels a little awkward, especially with a group of complete strangers. You could hear the nervous laughter."

Randy: "Stop. That was the easy part."

Male Narrator: "Improvisation is something I usually associate with comedy or theater or music. According to Randy Sabourin, the guy leading this workshop, improv is an important skill for entrepreneurs too, because just like comedians or jazz musicians, entrepreneurs need to make stuff up on the fly."

Randy: "We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the future looks like. If I do this, then this will happen. If I raise so much money, or we sell so many by then, then this will happen. Those plans basically come true, research says about 30% of the time. That means about 70% of the time, I need to shift course or make a decision."

Male Narrator: "Those moments when things don't go according to plan and you're standing in front of a client or your employees, that is where improvisation comes in."

Randy: "Basically, creating something and delivering it at the same time. That's improvisation, is being in that moment using all your creative faculties to solve the problem at hand."

Male Narrator: "Some people are naturally gifted at this. They're great on their feet, they know how to adapt to any situation and nothing seems to phase them. Sometimes I hate those people, because I am not one of them, and I'm jealous. Randy says improvisation is something you can learn. It's a process, a cycle, and it starts with paying attention."

Randy: "One, you have to pay attention to the other person, so I'm in front of a client and I need to understand what's going on on his face, his body language, the situation around me. Then I have to accept whatever he's given me. In business, that may be, "No, I don't want your product." Now the ball is back in my court, and I need to be creative and respond to bring the sale in. I add my creative part, so that's a third step, is adapting. The last step is delivering it. I say the words, I do the auction, whatever it is. It's a very simple process. It took us a long time to figure out what that process was, because we needed to define it in order to teach it to people."

Male Narrator: "Pay attention, accept, adapt, advance. That's the process. Randy says musicians and actors learn to improvise by practicing with other musicians and actors. In business, it can be tricky because you don't want to learn to improvise in front of your clients or your employees. That's why Randy teaches this stuff, and why his company does coaching and role play exercises. When I was a kid, we played a drawing game, exquisite corpse, where we'd draw a person's head on a piece of paper, then fold it over where you can only see the edge, then hand it to the next person, who would draw the neck, and so on and so on, drawing and folding, drawing and folding, until we had a super weird picture of a person. Well, at Randy's workshop, he made us do something similar. We had to tell a story, line by line, with each person picking up where the previous person left off."

Randy: "Accept what the last person said, and add your piece to it. When I got on the bus yesterday ..."

Participant: "I asked the person next to me for a ticket. " Participant: "I asked the person next to me for a ticket, and he gave me three. "

Male Narrator: "Okay, so the story wasn't very good. That wasn't the point. The point was to pay attention, accept what the previous person said, and add to it. That paying attention part, Randy says that's key, especially in sales."

Randy: "It never fails when you walk into someone's office, that there's a lot of information about that person, that we miss. There's trophies, pictures, books that they read. Something about them that is not relevant to our conversation about them buying services from me. The curiosity about that piece of them is usually the thing that endures me to them or them to me, that we start talking about their cats or bowling or their kids or the book that they read that I read too. It's not about my product is great, here's the price. It's never about that."

Male Narrator: "After the workshop, after all the clapping and naming and collaborative storytelling, the entrepreneurs I talked to said they got something out of the experience, but realistically, there are a lot of entrepreneurs out there who may never take a business improv class. So I asked Randy for some tips. Things entrepreneurs can do to stretch those improv muscles."

Randy: "The two places where business people, entrepreneurs, particularly fall down when it comes to improvisation is paying attention and giving up control enough to accept the situation and use it to move forward. Attention, a good one is to watch a sitcom and turn the sound off, and watch the punch lines. Tv actors are trained in status manipulation and improvisation, so you'll see every joke. That's one good one. The other one is when you sit in a meeting, look around and watch everyone's body language. Are people up, are they down? How is the relationship between JoAnn and John today? Is something happening there? That attention, that external awareness, is really a skill and a muscle that needs to be exercised a lot. I find that that increasing of awareness gives me ammunition for improvisation. It gives me food for that. That would be my second piece of homework."


Show notes:

About TGIM: TGIM is a podcast for people who can’t wait for the week to start. In each episode we’ll be bringing you inspirational stories about entrepreneurs who have overcome obstacles, built incredible businesses, and are now living the life they want.