When I was in high school, I was drawn to the theatre and the stage. Not for the spotlight, but rather to help creative people be their best selves. At just 16 years old, I befriended a local group of improv comedians who ended up becoming my best friends and teaching me valuable life and business lessons—though I didn’t know it at the time.
I became a lighting and sound technician for a local comedy troupe that performed on weekends in Red Bank, NJ. It was there that I observed the rigorous practices of a rehearsals, warm-ups and “post-mortems” of shows to determine what worked and what didn’t. One rule stuck out to me, the golden rule of improv: the practice of “Yes, And…”
The concept is quite simple. When you are on stage with a fellow performer or guest, it serves the scene best by reacting to new ideas with the phrase “yes, and…” This moves the scene forward and allows for iterative creativity and layers of laughs.
*Audience roars with laughter*
I can vividly remember the performers who didn’t uphold this rule, who argued, questioned or said “no” to new ideas and participation by the community of players. When this happened, the scenes were inevitably dark, sad and not funny. Audience members could feel it and sense the tension. The laughs they came for would never be realized. How could they? Progress isn’t made by saying no.
This idea of optimism, agreement and addition has stuck with me in my professional career. It has guided me in my personal journey to build companies and campaigns that are driven by the collaboration of my chosen team and by adding to their ideas and enthusiasm. The question I pondered is whether this was just my experience and that of these great performers, or whether we can all learn from this tactic and apply it to our daily lives.
So, I reached out to my old friend and performer/entrepreneur/charming host Matt Donnelly. Matt was a superstar performer in high school, always commanding scenes and crowds with his wit and speedy sass. I wanted to ask him and his colleague Jess Elaina Eason for some ideas on how the “yes, and” idea—and improv in general—might apply to business, life and leadership.
Evan: How do you define improv, for readers who may not be familiar?
Matt: Performance improv is the creative process on display. It is the synthesizing of creativity being accomplished by a group using simple shared rules.
Jess: Improv is being in the moment and reacting in real time. Improv is actively listening, not kind of listening, waiting for a chance to pipe in, but staying still, present and open to what your partner is saying.
What rules of improv do you use in your everyday life?
Matt: When in doubt, “Yes, and,” Agree and Add, Confirm and Contribute. Support the person taking the risk before you dismiss an idea, even if you really want to dismiss it. “No” is an expression of fear—assess that fear every time you say no. “But” is a word that dismisses every notion that precedes it in a sentence or conversation.
Jess: I try to say “yes, and” to as many people, experiences and opportunities that come my way. I also try to “yes, and” my children when I’d rather take a nap.
What has improv taught you about leadership and motivating people?
Jess: Improv has taught me that you must be motivated yourself; you must bring the energy and commitment you want to see in others. It’s taught me to be open to other people’s ideas and to work as hard as I can to stay open to them even if at first blush I’m confused or disagree. Motivating people becomes easy when you show up for them and when you are present with them. People can feel that energy, and improv has given me the tools to be able to do this.
Matt: Improv has helped me as a leader by embracing it fully. Leading doesn’t mean you have everything figured out. Leading means facilitating, delegating and encouraging your team to make choices.
Jess Elaina Eason
How can you use improv theory in your everyday life?
Jess: Saying “yes, and” as much as you are able to can truly change your life. Cheesy as hell to say, but 100 percent true. “Yes, and” makes you curious, takes you down roads you’d never imagine you’d go on and keeps you open to other processes and thoughts.
Matt: By creating an environment where new ideas must be embraced before they are dismissed, it provided team effort to tackle and explore outlandish ideas. Exploring and committing to silly and strange ideas can give way to kernels of real game changers that would never even be brought up in a typical business environment.
As a leader in an emerging industry, I’ve unknowingly applied all of these rules to my management style and the growth path of our company. With new ideas come more new ideas, and the best way to squash them is to say no. By using “Yes, and,” we’ve been able to layer on creative energy from our talented team and provide a social show for our clients that improves with each performance. And there have certainly been a few laughs along the way…
Matt Donnelly is the host of Matt and Mattingly’s Ice Cream Social podcast (Winner: “Best Comedy Podcast” -Podcast Awards). He is the head writer for CW’s Penn & Teller: Fool Us, Associate Director of Comedy for Opium at The Cosmopolitan Resort & Casino, and Director of Strategy and Innovation in the Work Place for Business Improv.
Jessica Elaina Eason – actress, writer, ambiguously ethnic woman. She was adopted from Bogota, Colombia when she was six weeks old by the whitest people in Massachusetts – and if you know Massachusetts, that’s really saying something! Jessica has been improvising all over NYC since 1999 and LA since 2011. Her first improv training was with Paul Sills at The New Actors Workshop, and Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Armando Diaz and Ian Roberts at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Jessica co-created, co-wrote and co-produced the popular web series ‘The Real Housewives of South Boston’ with Paulilu Productions. (over a million views) You may have seen her recently on NBC’s “Superstore” or looking for ‘Charlie!’ in a Liberty Mutual commercial. Jessica has written and performed two one person shows. She has taught business improv for over 10 years with Business Improv. Jessica has lead Business Improv programs at Duke University, School of Law, Columbia Business School (MBA & Executive Education), UCLA Anderson School of Management (MBA & Executive Education), Progressive, DuPont, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Neutrogena, and AstraZeneca. Her best productions are her two sons.