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  • Writer's pictureTerry Withers

CORPORATE WORKSHOPS: A Case Study In Improv Based Corporate Workshop Curriculum Building


What it looks like when I create an improv based corporate workshop curriculum with the RA team. I included a photo so you could see.
What it looks like when I create an improv based corporate workshop curriculum with the RA team. I included a photo so you could see.

I recently started working with a client looking for a 3 hour improv-based workshop for a group of 30 individuals. Corporate workshops come in many different shapes and sizes and this one had some particular challenges that I thought were interesting.


What follows below is a brief recounting of the initial client needs, the challenges in understanding and defining those needs, along with the final curriculum designed to meet client approval.


Let’s start with the easy part. 


30 people is too many for just one instructor when it comes to improv-based corporate workshops, so on my initial call with the client I explained that for an optimum experience we would need 2 instructors. My rule of thumb for improv-based corporate workshops is that one instructor can at a maximum lead a group of up to 20 individuals. But that is not ideal, it is better if we keep the number between 6 to 16.


So we agreed that the proposal I would put together for them would include 2 instructors that would each teach the same curriculum concurrently to 2 groups of 15 participants. This affects pricing of course as there are now 2 instructors to pay. RA charges $2,000 for a 1 instructor workshop ($1,000 for the instructor and another $1,000 for curriculum building, logistics, contracting and HR) and $1,000 additional for every additional instructor.


Simple.


The client was happy with 2 instructor plan, especially when I suggested that the entire group begin and end the workshop together. The beginning would feature a quick address explaining improv’s application to the workplace. At the end we would all convene for a final exercise that would be performative and celebratory of the entire experience.


Great, all of this made sense and the client was on board with everything, including the $3,000 fee. But then they told me what they wanted the corporate workshop to address:


  • Working With Difficult People - Fine, this is standard for improv.

  • Learning How To Say NO - Uh oh, at least on the surface this sounds like the opposite of what improv teaches…


I was upfront and explained that learning to say NO was something of a strange request for an improv-based corporate workshop, kind of like asking a cooking class to teach people how to never combine ingredients (ie the opposite of cooking).


They were equally candid and explained that many of their employees were people pleasers and needed to build comfort with disappointing others. The conversation turned to confidence and improv’s great application to teaching confidence. We agreed that a lack of confidence was probably at least partially behind the reluctance to say NO when NO is obviously needed. 


(Example of when to say no: “Let’s give this patient a medicine that would kill them”. You never want to Yes And that.)


That went well, but it wasn’t enough. I was concerned that maybe the client wasn’t convinced and was ready to find a new option from a different vendor. So I decided to take a risk.


“Lots of improv exercises require participants to say NO”, I blurted out. “Sure, that’s mostly done in order to demonstrate the power of saying YES instead, but we can still use those exercises to build a familiarity with saying NO.” 


Then we discussed YES AND CONVERSATIONS and also fun variations on the classic exercise. She loved the NO and YES BUT portions of the initial exercise and saw great potential in playing around with some other options.  


We agreed I would put together a $3,000 proposal for a 2 instructor workshop that described the workshop’s focus and some of the exercises I would include. 


I use the proposal as a way of gauging where I am with a client. Sometimes you can secure corporate workshops without making a proposal, probably too often. Let’s be honest, bothering to put together a professional proposal for an opportunity you’ll probably get anyway is a drag.


But when you offer a proposal, a client is either excited (because your proposal will make their job easier since they can just forward it to other stakeholders) or they don’t care (because they aren’t going to tell anyone else about you). You don’t want to miss out on knowing if a client needs more (more info, more value, more time, etc) before they’ll go with you, and judging how a client responds to the promise of a proposal can tell you just that.


This time they had been excited. Phew, I had gotten through the first stage.  


I put the proposal together, sent it with a video promo, a link to some reviews and some additional thoughts on the application of improv at work in the body of the email. I had a good feeling this would come through.


There was a lot of back and forth and a few more meetings. Ultimately the client’s goals changed and sharpened and I decided I would build a curriculum that was more focused on agility than on collaboration. 


Additionally the client wanted the focus to be on pure verbal skills. No miming, no touching (this felt more like an HR concern), moving was okay but only if it was in service of talking, no music or dance based exercises. These participants needed to focus on speaking.


I started worrying whether I could make this fun. Three hours of all verbal improv exercises with the focus on agility (how to adjust in the face of the unexpected). The danger was that the workshop would become exhausting; that even the most natural talkers among them would feel put to the test much earlier than the workshop ended.


Here’s the exercise list I came up with. Many of these are standard, so I won't go into them, but a few are either rare or adjusted to more directly address agility. In those cases I’ll do some explaining.


Curriculum

Intro Conversation - 5 Minutes


Warm Up 

Badada (Basic word association game - used here to get people used to speaking and participating on their feet) - 5 Minutes

Couple Sentence Story With Lead Ins (Variation on One Word Story) - 20 Minutes 


Main Workshop

Passion Rant (Heavy verbal exercise, good for beginners and modified here to allow for one person’s contributions to more commonly affect another’s) - 30 Minutes

Cocktail Party (Another heavy verbal exercise that asks participants to pay attention and adjust their contributions with with each other’s details - good for agility) - 30 Minutes


BREAK - 10 Minutes


Main Workshop


Warm (Back) Up

Pass The Face - 5 Minutes


Main Workshop

Flip Flop Speaker (This is a modified exercise from short form where a speaker takes a strident view and switches to the opposite view whenever the instructor claps) - 20 Minutes

Expert Circle - 20 Minutes

Guest Panel (This is the final exercise. It will be taught in each workshop for 20 minutes and then both groups will come together and share a final version with each other) - 35 Minutes


Okay let's break down a few of the exercises that are either or modified to address agility.


Couple Sentence Story With Lead Ins

I started teaching this exercise during the height of the Covid lockdown when I was leading a ton of online workshops to brand new beginners. I would often reach for One Word Story back then, because it was simple and worked well over Zoom.


But it also could get a little boring. So I started asking people to contribute a little more than just one word. A sentence or two and then the next person would go.


At the time I was numbering participants in their Zoom boxes, So #1 would go, then #2, then #3 and so on…  But this felt prescriptive and sort of anti-improv (not sure why it didn’t feel the same way when it was just One Word Story) so I asked players to start pitching the story to each other. Now they would know what order to participate in without there being a set order to follow.


This meant not just ending your turn by closing your mouth, but instead by tossing the story with a little bit of runway to the next participant.  So you might say something like, ”...So now the entire car was on fire and it was actually Angela who got the fire extinguisher and seemed to know a lot about fire safety. Do you want to tell everyone what happened when you used the extinguisher, Angela?” but not something so vague as, “Anything you’d like to add, Angela?”


Now tossing a specific topic may feel unfriendly, like you're tossing a very difficult problem to a teammate, but it actually makes improv simpler in an important way. Maybe the most difficult thing about improv is the sheer amount of options in front of you whenever it is your turn to speak. By telling Angela that her part of the story will be about the extinguisher you remove billions and billions of other potential subjects she might have spoken about. 


You’ve essentially made improv easier for her (as it always is when you go off of what your scene partner gives you rather than trying to concoct something amazing, privately in your head).


While this is true, Couple Sentence Story With Lead Ins is nonetheless perfect for addressing agility. Players don’t know when they’ll participate next and they don’t even know what they’ll be asked to address. That plus the verbal nature of the exercise makes it a good exercise to start the workshop with.


Flip Flop Speaker

I played this game in high school and loved it. I doubt this is the game's actual name.


The concept is simple. 


One player is given a topic and asked to speak about it from a particular perspective. It should be a topic with controversy baked in (but not too controversial), for example: “Burgers, better cooked on a grill or in a pan?” 


The player takes a strong position and argues for it until the instructor claps, at which point the player switches their position and immediately begins making the counter argument without ever acknowledging the change. So it might sound something like:


A burger needs to be grilled because a grill cooked burger has unique texture and flavor that cannot be duplicated in a pan. The bars of a grill sear a burger intermittently, leaving portions that are more tender. Then there is the additional flavor you get from the charcoal, which…


<<CLAP>>


…is disgusting and only for people with little or no ability to taste. If you want a tasty burger, then you want to cook it in a pan. A pan lets you add seasoning and fry your burger in the seasoning, whereas with a grill you’re just throwing seasons into a fire.


The exercise can continue for as long as the instructor thinks it is beneficial. If you have a really good player you can try clapping faster and faster, until you get to just a few words between each clap.


Obviously this exercise that asks you to adjust your message so fully so often is great for agility training.


Passion Rant (Modified)

I won’t describe this entire exercise, just the modification.


Rather than sticking with the initial passion selected at the start of the exercise, Players are instructed to listen to each other's contributions and adjust their original passion with elements they notice. This allows the instructor to note and discuss agility.


Passion Rant becomes similar to Cocktail Party when played with this modification, which is why the two exercises are next to each other. If time feels short (as it often can when leading corporate workshops) half of the workshop may play Passion Rant while the other half plays Cocktail Party.


In Conclusion

I hope this account of the booking and curriculum building of an improv-based corporate workshop was helpful. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions.  And check out RA’s corporate training page here!


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