It is fair to wonder why a place of business would choose to hire a professional comedian to teach its staff exercises normally reserved for aspiring comedians. What application does improv comedy really hold for a hedge fund? Or a hospital? Or an advertising agency? After all, these are serious places (except for the advertising agency) where decisions of life or death for people and fortunes are made. Isn't improv really just a fun distraction best used to build team camaraderie, like bowling or a weekly happy hour?
No. Improv is more than that.
That isn't to say that a company or organization couldn't use improv primarily as a team-building tool. Lots do. And improv is infectiously fun, so using it for team building makes a lot of sense. But improv comedy exercises can be used for so much more. In fact, they can be used effectively to hone just about any soft skill useful in a business environment. To understand why, a little bit of history about the origin of modern improv comedy is very helpful.
Modern improv comedy was created by Viola Spolin in the 1920s when she directed an amateur youth theater program for Hull House in Chicago. The young adults enrolled in this program came from diverse cultures and spoke a variety of languages, which created substantial communication barriers for them. Viola noticed that many of these students seemed isolated and were restrained by fear.
Leaning on her background in theater she created spontaneous games they could play together with two important features:
1) They did not require participants to speak the same language
2) The goal of the exercises was to make the other participants feel good about themselves
Viola's son, Paul Sills, would later take these same exercises and use them to train the actors at the theater he founded, Second City. This is the reason we primarily associate improv with comedy today.
If Paul had followed a different career path, perhaps we would primarily associate improv exercises with leadership, or negotiation, or customer service. Perhaps we could primarily associate improv with any profession that requires great communication skills and great empathy. Because at its core, that's what improv comedy exercises are all about: communicating with, understanding, and supporting others. These values work wonderfully when creating comedy scenes on the fly, but they are just as effective when looking to improve team performance at the workplace. What office wouldn't benefit from better communication? Greater support? A greater abundance of empathy?
And that's why Fortune 500 companies routinely hire professional comedians to work with their employees. Because they know that the most effective offices are the ones where employees enhance each other.