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It's amazing how many different ways you can miscommunicate with a scene partner in improv.


One simple trick to vastly improve communication onstage is to speak bluntly, especially when you're working with someone who you don't know well.  (By which I mean, someone who you have worked with expansively for less than 3-5 years.)  Hints, intimations, subtlety, rising dramatic tension or irony, and light suggestive offers, may all seem more artful than simply blurting out what you're thinking (and perhaps they are).  But if your scene partner can't guess what your're suggesting the scene is about, how valuable is all the artistry in the world?  In improv circles, this truth has been boiled down into the simple mantra, Don't Be Coy.  

Consider this initiation: 

"Welcome to the veterinarian's office.  Dr. Gunder  will see you soon."

Sure, maybe it seems hamhanded.  And you might legitimately complain that people do not shout out, "Welcome to the ________" when you visit the supermarket, the dentist, the health club, etc. Nonetheles, the above initiation successfully communicates a location and a relationship for an improv scene in the first line.  Compare it to the below: 

"Please fill out this form and return it.  You and Tigeroo may have a seat there while you do so."

The second initiation is far more likely to confuse someone than the first.  Maybe they think the request to fill out an undefined form establishes not a vet's office, but instead a surreal, bureaucratic landscape (similar to Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil).  Or maybe they misinterpret the name Tigeroo to be the name of a Chewbacca like figure in a scifi adventure, instead of a small cat.

Could it work out and be a great scene?  Of course!  Particularly if the two people in the scene know each other extremely well and can pick up on each other's subtle hints.  But more often than not, the person you are collaborating with is someone you're still getting to know.  It is friendlier and smarter to be as clear as possible in improv.

The same is true at work.

Roundabout conversations, laced with hints and intimations may feel friendlier and more comfortable thant straight talk, but they are more likely to leave your coworkers confused about the messages you are trying convey.  It is therefore friendlier and more supportive to be blunt (never rude) in favor of circumspect.

Consider a performance review coming early in an employee's tenure.  Perhaps this imaginary employee has been doing well in their position as an office assistant, but has been forgetting to turn off the security alarm properly when they open for the morning.  This results in a silent alarm being sounded and desperate calls from the security company to C Level Executives in an attempt to ascertain if the office is being broken into, yet again!  Since these calls occur behind the scenes the assistant is unaware of them, just as they are unaware of the fees that are accumulating for false alarms.

When providing feedback on such a scenario, consider the effectiveness of a hyper nuanced message:


"You're work has been great, mostly.  Sometimes little things get by you and I hope you can try to focus more on little things.  But otherwise, great job."

A review like this feels like a riddle.  There are so many little things!  One can imagine an employee becoming entirely ineffective as they seek to focus on just the little things.  

How about something a little more direct?

"Everyone has been happy with your performance.  Sometimes you enter the code wrong into the security system and that can be problematic.  There are other little things like that too.  But mostly, A+."

Okay, this at least mentions the problem so the employee has a chance to correct it.  But, the review is coy in a few ways.  One, it undersells how large of a problem the incorrect security code entries are.  Two, it creates the illusion of additional similar issues which do not exist.  (Perhaps the employee will try to ascertain what those are in an attempt to correct them before tackling the security alarm issue.  Three, this review's headline is, "You're great and nothing needs to change!"  Buried deep in the article is the important message, "You are messing up our security system."  That's the wrong order.

What if we applied the wisdom of Don't Be Coy?

"Everybody loves you here, Norman.  And you do a good job.  Except when it comes to opening up in the morning.  You consistently enter the security code wrong which results in panciked, early morning phone calls to Patty and hundreds of dollars of fines.  I can't see you staying in your position if you can't fix this problem."

Of the three options, which has the greatest chance of communicating the intended message?

I fully sympathize with anyone who reads the last statement and feels their stomach curl into a knot.  It's uncomfortable!   But, Norman needs and deserves to know he's messing up.  Trying to avoid the stomach curling moment is about you, not Norman and not your team. It is a counterintuitive act of kindness to be blunt in this fashion.  Once such a message has been delivered, you can rest easy knowing you took on an unpleasent responsibility for the good of your coworker and your team.  And no amount of delaying or hopeless hinting can help you avoid this moment.  Ultimately, Norman will have to realize he's been entering the code wrong and that others dislike it.  It's okay, he can handle it! 

Good exercises to bring up DON'T BE COY include:

  • Environment Charades

  • The Clapping Game

  • Meta Conversations

  • Classic Pairs

Terry Withers, 10.29.20

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