What Improvisation Taught Me About Conversations

In today’s article, we’ll skip the tips, tricks, and wisdom of public speaking and say a few words about everyday conversation.

3 min read


By Erlend Morthen


December 17, 2020

When systems and structure is of no help

A few months ago, a group of colleagues and I attended a workshop held by a professional actor and comedian. A number of challenges and activities were on the menu, but one marked me more than the others: Improvising a story together with a partner.

The game was as simple as it was engaging: First, partner up with someone. Second, listen to the few cues given by the instructor providing inspiration for the story. Third, begin telling the story - and invent on the go! Fourth, at the instructor’s signal, switch the person telling the story. This might be right in the middle of a sentence. Hear your partner out until you fear a new signal is, and take the lead once again. And so the story grows, perhaps together with your heart rate.

The participating group consisted of a broad range of people and backgrounds: designers, software devs, and managers. Personally, I work as a programmer, and I generally prefer to think things through before I either speak or act. I like it when things are being part of a larger system in a way that makes sense. Spontaneity and uncertainty are not my strongest assets - I get the feeling of lacking something to lean back on in case of unwanted surprises.

Being my usual self, this was the mindset I brought to the task we were assigned: Planning and setting up something of a structure for the story. I was not the only one - a bunch of the other people set out for the same, that is trying to plan and predict the outcome.

This approach failed spectacularly. The stories we all had planned out were just fine, but in the midst of the heat, combining them proved next to impossible. We would get hung up in the middle of sentences, struggling in our search for the next word and phrase which could fit into the grand plan we all had in mind. The situation was awkward rather than funny.

Engaging Creativity

Next, with a tiny bit of training, as well as a minor adjustment of the mind-set, we were now ready to take on the challenge once again. Based on our previous experience and tips from the coach, we now had a number of tricks in the back of our mind:

  • Listen to your partner, rather than preparing your next statement
  • Add adjectives
  • … then add some more
  • Visualize images in your mind, then express them
  • Express, rather than assess whatever comes to your mind
  • … in order to enter the flow state of the story-telling

The last two points cannot be stressed enough. The flow of the talk is everything and also providing the momentum necessary to come up with new ideas.

In hindsight, the game represented more than just an activity to have fun, get more acquainted, or to train for that specific game: The same learnings apply to any normal conversation you're having.

During your next conversation, try to listen a tad more to your partner than usually, and leave your own needs of concern behind for a moment - and try sprinkle in some words awakening the imagination. Welcome the feeling of uncertainty and enjoy the flow!