How to Use Improv to Improve Communication
By Patricia Raun
March 2, 2020
The participants face each other in pairs. At first the instruction is simple: Take turns counting to three. But the exercise soon grows in complexity, and numbers become claps, then stomps, and then chest taps. The participants start to make errors. And when they do, they throw up their arms and yell, “Ta-da!” Laughter rings out across the room as everyone begins celebrating flubs.
The performing arts have much to teach us all about communication and connection. As an actor and theatre professor, I’ve learned that effective communication requires not only deep listening and awareness, but also the willingness to be personal, spontaneous, and responsive. Improvisational exercises can teach and reinforce those skills.
Vary your expressions. The “One, Two, Three, Ta-Da!” exercise — in which physical actions replace spoken numbers — reveals the power of the nonverbal. Some of us learn best through words, others through visual cues, gestures, or even tone of voice. Understanding those distinctions can teach us to expand the ways we communicate.
Leave your comfort zone. In the “I Am From” exercise, participants share a strong memory of a childhood home. The emotional content and sensory details they express inspire close listening, and any discomfort a participant may feel soon melts into curiosity.
Tell your story. In “The Many Who’s I Am” exercise, participants rapidly finish the sentence “I am” in as many ways as they can muster within two minutes: “I am Patty, I am a professor, I am redheaded, I am an actor…” Many people run out of obvious identities at about the 50-second mark. Once they do, they begin sharing more personal details, and that’s when their stories get interesting. Share your humanity, your joys, your frustrations, and your struggles because emotion is more potent than logic in forging connection.
Leap across the divide. Our differences can separate us, or they can enrich our lives and broaden our perspectives. Improv can help bridge divisions by teaching us to listen deeply, interact spontaneously, and express ourselves vividly. And, as in the “One, Two, Three, Ta-Da!” exercise, it can help us learn to be gentler on ourselves and others when we make mistakes!
Patricia Raun, a professor of theatre arts in the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts, also serves as director of the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science. This feature is part of the Hokie How-To roundup in Illumination 2019–2020.