Communicate to Innovate: Tips from the World of Improvisation

Effective communication is at the heart of innovation: harnessing insights from customers, partners and co-workers, sharing ideas, building upon points of view, advocating and gaining support for one’s innovations all require razor sharp communication. Interestingly enough, communicating effectively is a two-way street. The sender and receiver of information are both responsible for landing it appropriately, and both sides need to actively participate. Two simple, but powerful behaviors that can help increase the efficiency of communication are listening and declaring.

Listening and declaring are the building blocks of any communication exchange; however, if executed poorly, they can make an exchange fall apart. Whether in an improv scene or in a boardroom, the sender and receiver in a conversation must cooperate fully and whole-heartedly. Here are a few tips to help you communicate clearly and effectively as you embark on your innovation journey.

I’m listening

A strong listener makes the sender feel validated and unafraid to speak their mind.

Listening – really listening – plays an important role in communication. Truly listening can make the person you’re working with feel validated and respected and can help to build trust and create the foundation for collaboration. A strong listener makes the sender feel validated and unafraid to speak their mind. This goes for every team member, from leaders to entry-level individual contributors

Listening with a clear head can also suppress a negative inner voice that is often distracting. If you give your full attention to the person you’re listening to, you stop hearing the self-judging, fearful voice in your head. Listening is not just about hearing words.

When an improviser is on stage she is listening to herself, her scene partner and the audience at the same time, she is listening with her ears, eye, heart, gut and any other way of collecting information she has. The only inventory we can collect to build our scene comes from listening.
Listening is first and foremost about awareness, about being present.

Make a statement

Great listening is not enough to make communication successful: you also need to practice the behavior of declaring, i.e. sending your messages skillfully. By introducing clear information from the very start, you will set your team up for success. For an improviser or a business person, a declaration signals the start of an idea exchange, a collaboration, the creation of something new. It’s a clear, concise way of letting your colleagues know your point of view and what you want to accomplish. A good declaration can be built upon, adapted and used as a springboard for more ideas.

Clarify when necessary

You would be surprised at how often making assumptions and failing to clarify can put us in a mindset of fear.

Communication breaks down when the sender and receiver are not on the same page. For the receiver, one way to fix this is to simply ask for clarification. Assuming you’ve understood the sender when you haven’t only leads to greater miscommunication. On the other hand, as the sender, always make sure the receiver has understood your point. This may seem like Communications 101, but you would be surprised at how often making assumptions and failing to clarify can create stress, distraction and a mindset of fear.

Especially in the midst of an innovation process, which is already full of uncertainty and risk, clarifying your point of view boldly and proactively can make you and others move from a place of confusion and lack of confidence to a place of safety and engagement. This movement away from fear leads only to the discovery of new information, points of view and ideas.

Adapt to the situation

No two offices or companies are the same. Compromises will need to be made in order to ensure good consistent communication. Taking a step back from time to time to identify what works best for both sender and receiver can be extremely productive and healthy for a team.

When my wife and I took over the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre in 1997, we were very intentional in how we held auditions. The industry standard is a relatively high-stress situation, which does not allow applicants to be their best selves. We listened to the wants and needs of the actors, and to our own conviction that standing alone on stage in front of a judging panel is not the most productive way to get to know a prospective employee. We declared that creating a safe place for all our employees, where they can be their most innovative selves, is important to our culture – and that declaration informed the way we structured the audition process. We let applicants know that we want them to succeed and that we can’t wait to get to know them. We let the whole applicant group warm up together, we introduce our team, and only then do we begin auditions. At the end of the process, and because we believe in a strong feedback loop, we have a conversation with the applicants about the experience. We offer some honest but kind observations that we hope will help them in their careers and auditions in the future.

We make sure that not only do we create a space for our prospective employees to make their declarations successfully, but that we also manifest our organization’s declarations in the way we treat human beings and the way we design processes.

Timing is everything

Finding the appropriate timing can only help ensure your message is heard.

Timing your statements and feedback and sending them intentionally can make a difference in how successful your communication is. Whether you’re pitching an idea, pursuing funding for your latest innovation or trying to influence someone’s opinion, take time to think about when your teammate would be most focused and receptive to your declaration. Finding the appropriate timing can only help ensure your message is heard.

As the listener, it’s important to make sure you’re able to give your teammate your full attention. Being available to listen is crucial.

Declaring and listening can take on many forms, from the off-the-cuff start of an improv scene to the honest point of view shared with your teammates to changing the perception of an entire society. What is important is that you find the best ways to declare and listen. Practicing these behaviors will help you become an intentional and skilled communicator, which in turn will fuel your innovation practice and success.

By John Sweeney

About the author


John Sweeney is the co-author of The Innovative Mindset and the co-owner and executive producer of the Brave New Workshop, America’s longest-running satirical comedy theatre. He uses his 20+ years of improvisational performance, speaking and training to influence human behavior and to create simple but groundbreaking tools that have ignited cultures of innovative behavior within such companies as Microsoft, PWC, General Mills and UnitedHealth Group.

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