• Terry Withers

Staying In The Moment

Updated: Oct 20

What if you could be a little more present at work by using an improv comedy mindset?

"Life is often so unpleasant.

You must know that, as a peasant.

Best to take the moment present,

As a present, for the moment"

-Stephen Sondheim

There is an old joke that goes like this: How do you make God laugh?

Make a plan.

Just the opposite is true with improv comedy. Go into your scene with a plan and get ready to bomb.

I actually remember a great example about how destructive plans are in improv from my first improv class.

The teacher was having us do scenes "staying in the moment". To accomplish this, two students would start a scene with their backs to each other. It sort of looked like they were about to march ten paces out and then duel.

Instead of a fight to the finish, when my teacher counted to three the students would spin around and face each other as fast as they could. The idea was that by jumping into your scene in this unprepared fashion you were forced to really be in the moment.

Well, one student didn't see it that way.

When she spun around she was supposed to observe her partner for a moment before speaking. Instead she quickly clapped her hands together and morphed her fingers into the shape of a gun. Her arms shot out, pointing her "finger gun" into her partner's surprised face. "Freeze!" she screamed, "This is a robbery!"

The teacher seemed tired. "Amber*," he said, "was that planned?"

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty alike.

"Yes." she admitted sheepishly.

My mind was exploding! How did my teacher notice that? How could he tell it was planned?

As it turns out, after you have watched about 10,000 improv scenes you start to get a very good sense of which ones are flowing organically in the moment as opposed to those that are being driven against their will to a preordained destination.

Pro Tip: You may not have watched 10,000 improv scenes, but I bet you’ve been involved in more than 100,000 conversations. If you look for it, you’ll be able to tell when you fall out of the moment in order to start pushing a conversation in a preordained direction.

"Let's start the exercise again. This time, no planning! Look into your partner's eyes, their face, the way they are standing and let it inspire you to say something that is in the moment."

Amber nodded her head and dutifully turned around. My teacher counted to three. Amber spun around, clapped her hands into a gun, jammed it into her partner's face and screamed, just a little louder this time, "Freeze! This is a robbery!"

I kid you not! She did the exact same thing again. Even after being directly told not to.

(I'll note, this was a good two years after The Office aired the famous Michael Scott-in-his-improv-class episode. I don't think Amber was inspired by that scene? But I guess I don't really know for sure.)

Later my wife and I spoke with Amber at a bar. All of us would often go out for a drink after class. And Amber admitted that it had been planned! In fact, she admitted she planned out multiple scenes before every class!

"I just get so nervous," Amber explained. "I want to have a good scene and planning it out seems like a good way to do that."

I always thought this was really funny. Planning out scenes for your improv class is kind of like buying take-out for your cooking class.

But how many of us do that, maybe in different ways? How many of us try to control an outcome by imagining what it should be? I know that for me it can be very easy to fall into that trap.

Practicing improv can really help with that. Even the very basic exercises are focused on listening carefully and building intelligently on what you hear. I know I found it very helpful, especially that first year.

Maybe that's why I noticed something weird I did around the same time. It didn’t happen in an improv class, but instead while I was just living my life.

You see, there was a sandwich that I really liked. It came with this really great mustard. The deli right beneath my apartment made them. One night after work I went to the deli to order one.

I told the guy behind the counter that I wanted the sandwich. And I said, you know, put the mustard on. And he said, "I'm sorry, we're out of that mustard."

So I said, without missing a beat, "Oh that's too bad. Well, let's definitely put the mustard on my sandwich then."

The guy just looked at me. He seemed really tired. Where had I seen that expression before?

Eventually I realized that the reason I didn't hear the news about the mustard was that in my mind I was already up in my apartment eating my sandwich. I could taste it, this imaginary sandwich of my future. In my mind it was delicious and I was finally, fully happy.

But nothing I was thinking matched up with reality… I felt the ground shifting underneath me.

How often was I living in a fantasy world? How often was I behaving in a way that made no sense given the moment? I did some quick internal accounting.

"Uh oh," I thought. "I just had a weird conversation with my wife. And there was that weird conversation I had at work. Then there was this weird conversation about the mustard, plus another weird conversation I had in a different deli earlier today getting coffee... This might be happening quite a bit."

And it still does, lest you think I'm claiming to be some sort of spiritual guru who wanders through life always fully present in the moment. No, I have lots of weird conversations in delis, and at work, and with wives, to this day. But improv has helped me be much more aware of what is happening in the present moment. And I can, with focus, control my tendency to be out of the moment with greater success thanks to improv.

And staying in the moment can be really important.

I mean, if I can't stay in the moment when the stakes are a tasty sandwich, think of how hard it might be to stay in the moment when you're in the closing stage of a big sale. Or when you're dealing with a very irate, but very important customer with a complaint.

Or at your annual review. Or anything really important.

Want to work on it?

But Terry! I don’t have time to take an improv class! I’m busy!

Of course you could always pop into one of RA’s free half an hour improv workshops in order to focus on staying in the moment. They are offered every single workday, after all. But maybe you’re too busy even for that.

Fear not. Here is a simple exercise you can use to practice staying in the moment… by yourself!

I’ve broken it down into simple steps below:

  1. Go to this page online. (It is a random dialogue generator.)

  2. Close your eyes and pretend you are about to give a presentation at work. Choose a subject that is complicated and that you can easily believe is important for you to present well. Really concentrate for half a minute about how you want your presentation to start.

  3. Now pretend that just as you are about to start your presentation (in front of a room of about 50 impressive looking professionals) a particularly intimidating attendee in the first row clears their throat interrupting you before you can begin your presentation.

  4. Open your eyes and click the button on the webpage I asked you to visit that is labeled “Generate a Line of Dialogue.” Pretend that the person clearing their throat says this line of dialogue to you. Most likely it will have little or nothing to do with your fictional presentation. Instead it will introduce new or unexpected information.

  5. Respond to that line of dialogue.

After you’ve responded, evaluate your response. Does it address what the person interrupting you has said? Or is it mostly focused on what you wanted to accomplish before you heard it?

The difference between a response that addresses the new information and a response that doesn’t, is the difference between being in the moment and living in a fantasy.

It may be that the new information makes continuing with your presentation entirely inappropriate. For example, if the line of dialogue generated is, “There’s a fire, everyone needs to evacuate!” then it would be entirely appropriate for you to respond with, “Which way is the nearest exit?”

But it is also possible to take in this new information and address it while forwarding your prior goals. This is probably the best outcome you can hope for when surprised by the circumstances you find yourself in.

In improv we call this going to your partner. I’ve heard people in customer service describe this skill as meeting people where they are instead of where you would like them to be.

Here’s an example of how someone might respond in this exercise that would count as going to your partner:

You’re about to start your presentation on new bird migration patterns in North America when you hear someone clear their throat and announce, “I think this room is bugged."

After considering this new information for a moment, you respond.

“That would really surprise me if someone had bugged the room. But even if they had, I’m comfortable continuing with this presentation as none of the information in it is sensitive or proprietary. Do you have an additional concern regarding this presentation being recorded?”

By directly addressing the unexpected concern, you have successfully gone to your partner. You have met them where they are in that moment.

Moreover, by considering whether their concern should prevent your presentation from continuing and demonstrating why, in fact, it should continue, you have also managed to move toward your pre-existing goal. The best of both worlds.

Granted, this did not occur in the way you imagined it might. Instead you needed to improvise in the moment in order to navigate a very unexpected concern. You needed to listen, stay and act in the moment.

This exercise can work under different imagined circumstances. What if you were about to propose marriage when your soon-to-be fiancee interrupts you with an unexpected line of dialogue?

Or what if you were about to start a drivers test? Or ask for a raise? Or request an autograph from a famous race car driver?

Any scenario that creates tension for you should work.

I’ll end his post by reminding you that staying in the moment is hard. It’s okay if you can’t always be in the moment one hundred percent. Instead, use this exercise to help you incrementally improve your ability. Over time you’ll notice you’ve improved at staying in the present moment.

For more insight into improv's application to professional development, visit RA's corporate workshop page.

by Terry Withers, 8/11/22

10/20/22 Postscript

Today I taught a virtual improv workshop for GoLocal. They set up the conferencing platform we used and I was very surprised to discover that the platform itself was explorable. I mean the little box my face was crammed into could move around a designed meeting space.

Hold up! This changes everything. Suddenly I found myself wondering about a handful of exercises I would definitely want to use if this workshop was happening in person. Could I switch my plan and use those?

So of course I had exercises planned for the workshop, but because it was virtual they were mostly exercises you could do sitting down. Anything that requires movement or an understanding of spatial relationships are a no no for online improv workshops. This new platform opened exciting possibilities.

I didn't know if it would work as well as I wanted it to. Maybe the movement gets glitchy, I worried. Or maybe something else would cause problems, something I wasn't thinking of.

But it felt wrong to ignore this wonderful opportunity. How could I call myself an improviser and not adjust my plans to incorporate this gift?

So I did.

I had participants sit in a straight line for Guest Panel. I had them walk around in an amorphous cloud in order to pick exercise partners. I should have had them do the mimed tug of war exercise!

Next time.

And it went great! But you know what, if it had gone terribly I still think it would have been the right decision. You can't ignore opportunities like that and stay in the movement. You have to say yes to the exciting things life serves up to you, if you want to be in the moment.

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