Surrender Yourself to Improv to Become a Better Conversationalist

Crop of photo by @marcrebillet on Twitter

Improv, short for improvisation, is a script-less performance art. In an improv performance, all or most things are made up on the spot.

The most popular version of improv is improv comedy — where performers act out scenes, come up with punchlines, or play games based on prompts from the audience or a facilitator.

However, improvisation can also be applied to non-comedic pursuits. Roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder could be considered improv drama or improv fantasy. There are also improv acts all over the world that perform full plays or musicals.

For example, the man in the thumbnail is an improv musician called Marc Rebillet. He livestreams improvised music on YouTube and Twitch, often with adult themes, in robes and boxers.

Marc also brings the same energy to live shows. He has the confidence of a thousand men. Dude is manly as hell.

Screenshot from Marc Rebillet’s YouTube channel

Marc embodies the end result of surrendering yourself to improv — a secure, confident, and generous personality.

Why improvisation is powerful

Improv stands out among other creative pursuits because of its script-less nature.

1. Insecurity Aside

To be a good improv artist, you need a high level of comfort with yourself.

You need to trust yourself and believe that you’ll make something good. There is no room for insecurity during a performance. You just have to perform. In that way, improv is an athletic endeavor.

Trusting yourself is one of the most powerful acts you can do in a performance, and in your daily life.

2. Gift Giver

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, during a performance you stop thinking about yourself.

If you’re performing improv on stage with others, all you think about is giving your partners material to work off. As a DM in D&D, you give your players story options to explore and feel like heroes. Even as a solo performer, you think about finding something creative to enrapture your audience.

While self-trust is important, the practice is not about you or your skill. It’s about creating something out of nothing and sharing it with someone.

3. Egoless Endeavor

In a group performance, sometimes you are the butt of the joke.

The story takes a turn at your expense. Your scene partner comes up with something silly or demeaning for you. You just have to deal with it, because the most important thing in improv is to keep the scene going.

Being able to take criticism or unfair characterization in stride is a sign of a very secure person.

4. Falling into Flow

Trusting yourself and rolling with the punches is an incredible amount of fun.

When you are performing improv, a few key states of mind emerge. You experience clarity, concentration, and challenge — all elements of the flow state.

The flow state has been described as the peak experience of consciousness. When we are in flow, we are fully immersed in what we are doing. We become completely present, and as a result, feel the most rewarded.

Chasing the flow state is a great lifestyle, and improv can help you habitually fall into it.

Beyond the performance — become a better person

The principles of improv have a big overlap with the principles of being a good person.

Being secure and confident isn’t just good for performances, it is wondrous for your mental health. If you’re able to feel intrinsically confident, you are better equipped to minimize anxiety and stress. Your health and well-being are directly impacted by how secure you feel.

Being a giver in conversations makes you an attractive person. People are drawn to those who listen to them. Giving somebody the platform to speak and building upon the conversation makes you charismatic.

Trusting yourself is a self-fulfilling prophecy in success. When you can trust yourself to do well, you improve your longevity and patience. You give yourself the chance to stick to your craft long enough to become good at it and start attaining success.

Healthy, charismatic, and competent — these are three incredible traits to embody.

Add improv principles to your daily life to be a better conversationalist

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

So how do you add improv to your daily life?

You could certainly start playing D&D or join an improv comedy troupe. As you immerse yourself in the culture, you will slowly build up the skills needed. It’s also helpful that you have fun doing them, because that will give you the impetus to stick with the craft.

However, if you only want to test out the principles, you can easily start building them into your conversations:

1. Use the principle of “Yes, And”

One of the fundamental principles of improv is to agree (yes) and build upon (and) the material someone gives you. If you watch celebrity interviews, you’ll notice that they often build upon each other’s jokes points and jokes.

Using the “yes, and” principle in conversations is one of the easiest and most effective ways to start adding improv to your life. (Note: You don’t have to actually use the words “yes, and” all the time.)

For example, if you’re getting to know someone, add a bit more information than what they ask for so that they have something new to ask or say.

Insufficient
Pratibha: Are you from Bangalore?
Siddharth: Yes.

Better #1
Pratibha: Are you from Bangalore?
Siddharth: Yes, I live in Indiranagar. What about you?

Better #2
Pratibha: Are you from Bangalore?
Siddharth: No, I moved here in 2011 to study at Christ University. Are you from Bangalore?

Using a question as the “and” part of your answer is a good way to keeping the conversation going. Throw the focus back and forth by asking questions so that everybody has a chance to talk.

Try a mix of asking related questions and digging deeper. For example, in the above example, Sid can ask, “where are you from?” as a related question, and “what do you like about living in Bangalore?” to dig deeper and move away from small talk and towards slightly more intimate conversations.

Confident people are also able to use “yes, and” to gracefully be the subject of the joke.

Pratibha: Siddharth is like an SUV— slow and inefficient.
Siddharth: Yeah, and I also have a huge boot in the back.

This is, of course, for casual and fun conversations. Don’t “yes, and” your boss when she’s trying to get you to work 4 hours longer. Also don’t “yes, and” your friend who is having a difficult day and is indulging in negative self-talk.

2. Collect and Share Stories

Storytelling is the heart of all art, and human beings have been doing it since language was first invented. When an opportunity presents itself in a conversation, share a relevant story and solicit another from your conversation partner. For example,

Insufficient
Siddharth: What do you like about your car?
Pratibha: It gives me good mileage, it’s reliable, and I like having my own car so I can travel around town freely.

Better
Siddharth: What do you like about your car?
Pratibha: A couple of months after I bought it, I took it for a long drive to Kodaikanal by myself. That was my first solo trip. During that drive, it was just me and my music in my haven. I’ll never forget when I picked up the smell of eucalyptus on the way. Have you ever been to Kodai?

This requires you to be vulnerable enough to share your personal experiences. It requires you to put your insecurities aside.

When you find an opportunity for a relevant story, you can move the conversation towards topics you like talking about and see if the other person responds positively. Stories help us move past awkward barriers in conversation and become friendlier faster.

3. Ask “What if”

Not all your stories need to be real experiences. Go on hypothetical tangents and explore them in conversations. “What if X was true?” and “If X is true, what else is true?” are great prompts to improvise, play, and explore. For example,

Siddharth: Yeah, I really enjoyed the new Marvel movie.
Pratibha: It was great! If we lived in that version of New York, what would that be like?
Siddharth: I imagine watching the heroes fly by on a regular basis would keep things interesting. What are the chances you’d develop some superpowers?
Pratibha: If I could develop flight or teleportation, I’d probably just help people get to hospitals quicker.
Siddharth: Like an emergency taxi service? With your own hotline number?
Pratibha: Yeah, why not? The extra calories burned would be nice too.

Hypothetical discussions go beyond the mundane and touch a deeper level of conversation. These conversations easily lend themselves to express feelings, understand principles, and learn philosophies, leading to a more intimate friendship.

4. Be wrong

Too many people, myself included, justify themselves and double down on stances in an effort to be right. This often comes at the cost of a relationship and turns people away.

It’s okay to be wrong occasionally. A secure person is not afraid to accept a mistake and move on from it. If you practice being secure, you will ultimately become secure. Admitting to wrongness doesn’t make you a lesser person.

For example,

Siddharth: The COVID vaccine made my cousin’s friend impotent. His testicles became swollen.
Pratibha: Sid, there have been no such reported problems in the vast amount of testing on the vaccine.
Siddharth: Are you sure?
Pratibha: Yes. I am a doctor and keep up with research on the vaccine.
Siddharth: You’re probably right then. I’ll look into it a bit more. Thanks.
Pratibha: Let me know if you want some reading material.

Note: Some of the above examples might sound hokey outside of context, but fit well in a larger conversation.

Use these techniques in moderation and experiment with them to see which work the best for you.

Remember, we’re all making it up as we go along anyway. We might as well have some fun while we’re at it. All the best on your own improv journey.

Summary

  1. Improv is a performance art that is performed script-less.
  2. Improv makes you secure, giving, and egoless.
  3. Improv is a great way to enter the flow state, where we feel present and happy.
  4. These benefits help you become a more confident and charismatic person.
  5. Use “Yes, and” to keep conversations flowing and throw focus back and forth.
  6. Collect and share stories and explore hypothetical questions.
  7. Don’t be afraid to be wrong.
  8. Use these techniques in moderation to see which work best for you.
  9. Consider trying improv comedy or D&D as a fun hobby.

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Vaibhav Gupta

Vaibhav Gupta

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Professional technical writer, 2x Distinguished Toastmaster. I write about mental health and self-awareness. Also see https://medium.com/thorough-and-unkempt