Why Your Social-Media Expert Should Be an Improv Comic: 7 Reasons

Would you trust your social-media voice to an improv comic?
Would you trust your social-media voice to an improv comic?

I recently told a few hundred Canadian marketers that their social-media expert should be an improv comic, an insight that hit me during my all-night roadtrip to Toronto. Moments later, one former improv comic (from Freshed Baked Entertainment) confided at lunch that he’s using his improv experience to help brands create entertaining content.

This notion mostly went over well, and I pledged to write about it. I’m beginning here on WillVideoForFood.com and I’ve posted it on Scribd (a good way to distribute and SEO-optimize your writing if you can’t afford PRWeb or PRNewswire). If you’re a blogger or publisher, I invite you to use part or all of this with attribution… and hope to fancy it up for a magazine.

I have four sources of inspiration for this concept:

  • ImprovEverywhere’s Charlie Todd, who I’m connected to in an odd way that falls between friend and fan. It’s a parasocial relationship, but since I’ve met him and he returns my phone calls or e-mails I’m allowing myself to call dub the “Causing a Scene” author a “virtual colleague.” I was struck with how well he does media, and I attribute that to his experience as both an improv comic and advanced teacher of the discipline. Todd, in fact, was who encouraged me to enroll in the wildly heralded UCB Theater in NYC. I’d later, sadly, become an improv-school dropout because I lost my financial excuse to visit NYC weekly and my dad died. But I’ll do it again.
  • I did significant research to prepare for my Improv Comedy course, and learned a tremendous amount in the early classes. My goal was not to become an improv comic, but understand how improvisational skills might translate to my work and life. Like you, perhaps, I often default to “fighting the wind” (arguing the inevitable), which can be empowering but both exhausting and unsustainable. So I hoped to learn new ways to “roll with life” or “go with the flow.” One of my favorite affirmations is “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” (source). How many of life’s “problems” would vanish if we gave ourselves that rare gift?
  • I’ve also had lengthy conversations with Melissa Katz, a former colleague at Johnson & Johnson who oversaw Centocor’s public relations. She’s a former improv comic, and helped me understand how many of the tenets of improvisational comedy translate to corporate or public-relations.
  • Finally, David Alger is one of many improv-comics that crystalized the basic “rules” of improv comedy, and I hope to help you see how some of these rules apply to your social-media presence. I quote him simply because he ranked high on Google SEOs for “improv comedy rules,” but there’s no shortage of wisdom on improvisational comedy. I’m quite sure there are dozens of other applicable rules I’ve left out (like being honest, a truism in both improv and social-media).

So forgive me for being an improv-comic dropout, but trust that what I learned in my first portion of the class will help you either find a good social-media expert or nurture one who is. I give you “The Seven Reasons Your Social-Media Expert Should Be an Improvisational Comic.”

(oh- you gotta hit “more” to read them).

  1. Yes, And. A basic rule of improv comedy is “yes, and.” A good improvisational comic never contradicts a fellow comic, and instead rolls with the direction his or her stage-mate casts. That means they’re ready to drop their idea of where they WANT to take the sketch, and build on where the other team-members are heading. This, inarguably, is true for social media. You may hope that social-media will conform to your ideas for your brand or company, but you’d better be ready to roll with what comes your way.
  2. Don’t Block. An improv sketch dies whenever one or more people “block” or change direction. If I say we’re naked plumbers and you decide we’re not, then we’ve lost our flow. Likewise, social-media experts are doomed if they contradict the voice of other participants. It’s a conversational medium, and nobody wants to be contradicted.
  3. Team Play. Standup comics are one-man bands, but improv comics learn to be a part of an ensemble. It’s like the difference between a golf player and a basketball teammate. In corporations, the social-media expert rarely has completely free reign, and answers to executives, marketers and public-relations people. But he or she must also focus on the audience’s needs, and balance these requirements like a good plate-spinner.
  4. Don’t Ask Questions. Alger, an improv-comic who teaches the Meisner technique and whose rules are worth a read, reminds us not to ask questions. In improv comedy, that puts the pressure on a teammate. The improv comic should already know the answer. While it’s true that the social-media expert wants to listen to (and engage) the audience, he or she loses credentials if often asking others for answers.
  5. Focus on “Now.” Reading Eckhart Tolle, I’ve often been reminded that the unchecked mind likes to live in the past and future (but the only “real” moment is right now). While gurus, futurists, and historians have their merit, the improv comic is acutely trained at the “here and now.” A corporation or brand blogger likewise needs to manage whatever strange circumstances arrive, within a loosely written script. Apply a lot of process or structure on the social-media “voice” and you’ll get something irrelevant to audiences and awkwardly detatched.
  6. Change, Change, Change. Alger writes this about change, “Improv is about character change. The characters in a scene must experience some type of change for the scene to be interesting. Characters need to go on journeys, be altered by revelations, experience the ramifications of their choices and be moved by emotional moments.” How true this is in a rapidly moving social-media world. If your social-media guru embraces change, your voice and behavior with crowds will appear fluid and consistent. Unfortunately many public-relations people have a plan and agenda that makes them fairly change adverse.
  7. Put Audience First. As marketers we are often “snipers” not “entertainers.” We target people and interrupt them with our message via ads. We tell them how our product will make them feel, and suggest they can’t have that feeling without it. We believe we have “the right” message, and demand it to supersede any thoughts and beliefs of passive recipients. Dozens of years of advertising has taught us that reach, frequency and single-minded messages should prevail. But that “let them eat (my) cake” audacity clashes with a new conversational medium. We need to be curious, flexible, and attentive to the “wisdom of the masses.” And rigidity, panic and defensive behavior produce a childlike fit like Michael Richards (Kramer) exhibited in his infamous racist explosion.

Notice that I’m not suggesting that every brand or corporation’s brand should be “funny.” In fact some voices are educational, serious, compassionate, or provoking. But the skills and DNA of an improv comic are highly consistent with what we want in our social-media “front line.”

Is this notion without flaw? Of course not. Improv comics can be impulsive and “blue.” They can be wonderfully tortured, and not the kind of people to whom a company wants to cede its reputation. Sometimes the brand or company’s social-media messages need to be purposeful and overcome false or biased attacks.

But if you’re fighting with this tenant that social-media and improv comedy are similar, then you’re doing the exact opposite thing that conversational media requires. You’re listening to your own ego and its biases against this, and likely to comment below that I’m full of crap. And that, we’d both agree, is a good example of bad social-media in practice. Unless your argument is funny and informed, and uses the word “fart.”

22 Replies to “Why Your Social-Media Expert Should Be an Improv Comic: 7 Reasons”

  1. Hey Nalts… like this concept. I’m thinking that in a fast-paced, on-demand world, we need to be able to respond immediately and with some creativity and wit. How else do we gain and keep the attention of those we seek to communicate with? Love it. I’m hiring at TLG, and am going to begin trolling the comedy club scene.

  2. Who is this “tenant” of improv comedy you keep speaking of? Can I meet him? Where does he live? I hope he’s like Colin Mochrie. I like him.

    Oh… You mean “tenet”!

  3. I didn’t manage to read the whole thing on my first attempt (I skimmed over some parts). I’ll have to come back later when I have time to go through all of the (many) links.

    Reasons #1 and #2 look almost the same to me.

  4. As an improviser who also works in Social Media, thank you for writing this post.

    Please forward it to all prospective employers.

    That is all.

    Great post though – I agree completely and have started a series of posts relating improvising to social media for business – the skill set definitely translates.

  5. I love improv, but I’ve never been much for the rules of improv. I like dramatic contradictions, things that completely send everyone and everything built up into a spiral.


  6. I run an improv theater and training center in Austin, Tx (The New Movement) and am affiliated with a new one in Dallas (The Dallas Comedy House). Improv has changed my life since I first learned it in New Orleans, 2004 – I agree with a lot of this. Improvisers are much easier to deal with in most walks of life. This could be a regular series along the lines of “Why Your _____ Should be an Improviser.”

    _________ = best friend, lover, head waiter, babysitter

    I’m brilliant.

  7. Awesome post!

    I’ve taken my fair share of Second City and IO (improv olympic) classes here in Chicago, but I never thought about how the basic rules of improv could be applied to social media.

    The first example that came to mind was the way most people RT(re-tweet) on Twitter. Too many people simply RT articles (the ‘yes’ portion) but don’t add to the idea with the ‘and’ portion. In improv it’s what moves the scene forward, and in social media it’s what moves the conversation forward. Agreement alone is a boring thing to watch/read.

    I’m sure there are many more examples, and I’m excited to start putting them to use.

  8. I practice my improv skills while on the toilet.

    I went to a filming of “Who’s Line is it Anyways” many years back. All 4 of the guys in the picture above were there. They asked for a topic from the audience of a job we work at. I worked at a drug rehab at the time and they picked mine for an improv song. The song ended up with Bill Cosby and Hitler smoking crack. Totally hilarious! The producer or whoever the guy was that had to worry about censoring had a fit! The guys ignored him and kept going on with the song. The guy came back out and yelled at them about how much money it was costing since they were ignoring him. I was rolling! It was so funny and yet I realized that the funniest shit on that show ends up getting edited out before it makes it on TV.

  9. Perhaps originally he *did* mean “inunarguably” – it’s a way of saying that you can’t not argue against it. Very clever, and I applaud your imaginative use of the English language.

  10. @19: Trust me, Kevin spelled it wrong. I have been the “Spelling Nazi” on this blog long enough to know. Kevin has issues with the English language. 😉

  11. I’ve been in SEO and SMO for a couple years and I started taking improv classes a few months ago. I couldn’t agree with this more. Improv comedy and social media management are, by nature, white-water, ever-changing environments. When the waves take you in directions you didn’t expect to go, you better always be ready to start surfing.

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