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Big Orange Slide

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Career Advice: Improvise

March 21, 2014 by Michael Appleby

Career Advice - Improvise[4]

The whale’s stomach was completely empty except for Elton John, my ex-wife Cheryl and I. The three of us were locked in a sentimental slow dance. You see, Cheryl had just revealed that I was the father of all eight of her numerically named children, and I, the classy pushover I was, had found it in my heart to forgive her almost instantly. Elton was there to soften the news, and his presence was a great comfort. But what was I to do next? Snap out of my woozy delirium and accuse Cheryl of manipulating me? Confess a secret of my own? Make a move on Elton? Thankfully the lights went down before I had to commit, allowing us to gracefully slip off stage. The first scene of our grad show was in the books, and we managed to get some big laughs. Phew.

The moment my friend mentioned that she was taking an improv class at Second City, I knew I was going to do it. As a lifelong comedy nerd and Whose Line Is It Anyway? fan, I almost felt obligated. Plus, as clichéd as it sounds, being an advertising creative it just made sense. Today, I’m on the other side of my 10-month-long journey through the Improvisation Program at Second City, and the career-relevant lessons were richer than I could have ever possibly imagined. The following sums up why anyone in advertising should consider taking improv.

You challenge the order of the universe.
From a young age, we are trained to say no to things – things that are unlikely, unexpected or completely absurd. While this skill helps us navigate the world more efficiently, it’s not so good for creative advertising, which requires limitless thinking. In improv, you learn to say Yes, and then stand back and look in awe at all the doors that open up.

You learn the power of “Yes, and..”
Improv is like traveling through life backwards – you only see the things you’ve already passed. “Yes, and” is the acceptance of these things and the promise to build on them. It’s easy to get annoyed when a scene diverges from your own internal plan, but it’s counter-productive. Similar to group brainstorming, you rely on the open minds of your partners, and they rely on yours. Which brings up the next point.

You learn about teamwork.
In improv you’re all walking a tightrope together. It takes some exploring to find the hook of the scene, and it’s never developed by one player alone. Creative brainstorming is much the same. It starts with a nugget of a thought, which may or may not have a golden idea buried somewhere within it. The only way to find it is to have everyone commit to digging together while setting egos aside.

You learn how to tell a story.
Improv is all about storytelling, and by the end of the program the basics had become instinctual. In advertising, our job is to find the drama in a product and tell its story in an engaging way. No matter what the medium, the idea is only as good as the story you’re telling, which makes this an invaluable skill in any ad person’s repertoire.

You discover the power of emotion.
To humans, emotion is compelling – our empathetic minds are magnets for it. For an emotionally neutral person like myself, all it took was an enraged diatribe about slippers for me to feel its awesome power. In advertising we are always looking for emotional hooks, and I’d argue that exploring the extremes of my own emotional reserves has made me better equipped to elicit emotion in others.

You learn the power of characters.
We open on two people doing laundry. Would you rather watch two ambivalent drones or a down-on-her-luck diva and her subservient handler? A strong character informs where your thoughts go, and in writing, this is a very valuable tool. The next time you need to find a brand voice, create a character and go method with it.

You learn the value of authenticity.
In my experience, the scenes that got the best response weren’t necessarily funny – they simply felt real. Nothing sucks the credibility out of a scene quite like stretching for a punch line or bending the narrative for a joke. I think the same is true in advertising. You could write the smartest headline in the world, but if it doesn’t feel authentic to the brand, it won’t get the response you were hoping for.

We’re always looking to try new things. Have you taken a great course in the past? What do you want to take next? Let us know in the comments.

6 Comments on "Career Advice: Improvise"

  • Jeremy De Mello
    March 21, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    Improv is easily one of the most useful skills. My Dad is a professional jazz musician, so I like to say I have improv in my blood. I think another advantage improv brings is that it enables you to pivot better in times of stress or crisis, since you know to move on and try something else.

  • Roma
    March 27, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

    Great job Mike! Do let me know when you’re on stage next, and I’ll be there for sure xo

    March 27, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

    Very well written. Can’t wait to see a show. Please let us know next time you are performing. You were a wicked-funny MC at our wedding :)

  • Big Smit Dawg
    March 27, 2014 @ 6:44 pm

    Mike Appleby > Drew Carey

  • Dale
    March 27, 2014 @ 6:54 pm

    I don’t think it really matters what course you take. If you continually look for new educational/learning opportunities in a group setting, chances are you will get value out of it. Very well written.

  • Ian Mackenzie
    July 3, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

    Love this! Well said Michael.

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