Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up

What can improv comedy teach us about work and life? A lot, it turns out. Behind the seemingly freeform, loose, and out of control performances is a very robust framework of structure. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, creativity is often based on rules, structure and discipline. And in her book, Improv Wisdom, Patricia Madson gives us unique insight into what’s behind the curtain.

In an engaging narrative that begins with revelations from her own professional life story, Madson, who has been on the Stanford University drama facutly for over 30 years, walks the reader through 13 “maxims” that make Improv work. And that apply to your life too – in interesting and useful ways.

Say yes

Take for instance the premise of agreement. “Say yes” is the first maxim. It leads you down a road of agreement and building in discussions. No “yes, but” is allowed. And plain old “no” is off limits. This rule forces a continuous flow of ideas that build on each other. It forces you to find something positive to build on and ignore negatives altogether.

Don’t prepare

Other maxims like “don’t prepare” and “pay attention” lead can lead you to be more present and to trust in yourself more. Take for instance the simple ritual of introductions in a group. Better to pay attention when others are making introductions than to preoccupy yourself with what you’re going to say. You don’t really need to prepare; when your turn comes, the words will too. But, you do need to pay attention to others carefully so that you can remember their names and other attributes.

Start anywhere

My other favorite is the “start anywhere” maxim that makes you realize for most projects, simply starting is critically important. The problem or project looks different once you’re inside it rather than studying and analyzing it from the outside. And, starting builds momentum. A sense of relief and accomplishment that can be leveraged into real results, often faster than you think.

Good ideas, well-presented

It’s a short book and a good read. Each maxim is supported not only by improvisation experience, but also by interesting and memorable anecdotes from real life. There are also simple exercises presented with each for you to try in order to test out the ideas for yourself. All in all it’s a very fun, interesting and practical book.