February 23, 2016 kirstycooke

How the principles of improvisation apply to marketing

Bear with me people. I really love improv and I’ve been trying to sneak it into every conversation recently. I even gave a little talk in the office the other week, so now I am putting some thoughts on my copywriting blog to see if it works. Ahem.

Active Listening

In an improvised comedy scene, you rely on your scene partner SO MUCH. Whatever they say or do – the offer – is what you are going to use to build a story and ultimately a great scene. Without good listening, improv scenes just fall apart.

Similarly, marketing starts with, ends with and relies upon one person – your customer! If you don’t listen to them, you simply won’t be able to give them what they want and need. This doesn’t mean a cursory survey once in a while, it means REALLY REALLY LISTENING.

In improv, you base your actions on what your partner did, not on a preconceived idea (‘spontaneous’ being the name of the game). Within customer marketing, this translates as ‘not going in with preconceived notions of what your customers love and hate about what you do’. Ideally, you’ll be collecting lots of data that reveals explicit and implicit things about your audience… not guessing.

Agreement & Building

As above, a scene will collapse if you forget to “Yes And” a suggestion. Take the offer and build on it. Don’t block someone’s creativity and enthusiasm by saying “No” to their offer.

“Captain! There’s a shark on the port side!”

“What are you talking about grandma? Now hurry up and take your turn on the swings.”

It’s amusing, actually, but it’s shambolic and makes the first person feel like you don’t have their back. YES AND everything.

Tina Fey sums it up: “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.”

This doesn’t mean never using the word ‘no’ (or always using the word ‘yes’). It means opening your mind to possibilities. It means really ACKNOWLEDGING (again with the listening) what someone has said.

In marketing, it’s not enough just to listen to your customers. You need to agree. And you need to build. Listen to their feedback and work it into your products and services.

Another thing that makes for good improvisers is letting go of ego, of narcissism, and remembering that it’s not All About You. Be there for your customers like you’d be there for your scene partner(s).


My favourite rule of improv (not that we really talk about ‘rules’, as a rule) is COMMIT. COMMIT COMMIT COMMIT. Every teacher I’ve had so far has said “There is no wrong thing. What you are saying or doing, whatever it is, is right.” With that knowledge comes, ideally, a great confidence. And a better performance.

You make bold statements. You don’t doubt yourself. Your face does not say ‘I am unsure’. Crucially, the audience feels comfortable because a) you seem in control and b) you look like you are having ALL THE FUN.

(This is especially important in musical improv, because bad singing + confidence > good singing + shyness. Thanks Maria Peters & Phil Lunn, who are currently running a brilliant course on this.)

This may seem to undermine the points above about listening and responding, in that I am advocating a blind commitment to everything you say and do. Maybe it does. But my message here is that putting a product out into the world, on the back of lots of research and hard work, should come with a certain amount of BOOM, HERE I AM. You might tweak it later, sure, but with every THING you put in the world, you should be like THIS IS ME AND MY PRODUCT AND IT IS AWESOME.

PS This also needs you need to stand by your errors. Take responsibility for what your company does. Where marketing/PR/customer service overlap, take the opportunity to say a heartfelt sorry for letting people down. It’s better.

Emotion and Relationships

Getting your audience completely invested in a scene and your characters depends, so the theory goes, on creating emotion in a scene, and on establishing and building relationships. Some tips: decide on an emotion at the beginning and commit to it strongly. Know your scene partner’s character (avoid education and transaction scenes – thanks Jinni Lyons!) Most important: make the story rest on those emotions and relationships.

Focussing on ‘stuff’ – the food, the sport, the activity in the scene – is not advised. Unveil a power struggle, a deep disappointment, a love that knows no barriers, or sibling jealousy, and suddenly the audience is hooked.

Similarly, marketing needs to be about the WHY rather than the WHAT. (See the TED talk by Simon Sinek to understand what I’m on about). Emotions connect you to audiences. Telling stories is more interesting than listing facts. Don’t be ashamed, as a brand, to commit to an emotion that you hope will resonate with your audience.

(Forbes suggests some good ways to do this on social media.)

Detail Early

Good scenes get the detail out the way pretty quickly. Establishing the who, what, where is key. Not much here to link to marketing and communications, you might think, but you are wrong. The first class I did saw us attempting ‘3-line scenes’ and that should highlight everything you need to know about the importance of brevity.

We did a line, our scene partner did a line, we did the final line and that was the whole thing tied up.

After three lines, we know who these people are, we know where they are, we know what they’re doing, and we know their relationship to each other. In a short time we know everything we need to know.

Remind you of anything? “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” THAT WAS ALBERT EINSTEIN PEOPLE. Marketers: you may think your business is too nuanced and exciting and different to be explained in three sentences, but you’re not special. You need an elevator pitch just like everyone else.

The good news is, once you’ve mastered brevity in your ‘why my business exists’ piece… you may still get the chance to do a whole scene on it. As it were.

And that’s perhaps where the improv advice needs to stop. Because when it comes to selling your business to anyone you meet, it probably helps to be prepared with some killer lines. And that’s frowned upon in improvised theatre.


Superb advice to be a better improviser in Katy Schutte’s blog; the great courses I’ve been on are from Hoopla (who organise most of the top notch shows at The Miller each week), and a shout-out to my fave people to watch do this, who are actually good enough to ignore the rules: Austentatious, Grand Theft ImproCariad & Paul, and Racing Minds