Improv for Community Pros

When you think “improv,” you might picture a group of comedians at a local club, riffing on audience suggestions. But the skills of improvisation – active listening, adaptability and problem solving, among them – are skills that aide successful community professionals.

Zach Ward is the longtime owner of DSI Comedy, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based comedy theater school where they perform improv and teach the art of comedy. For well over a decade, he’s been teaching these skills to corporate clients like Proctor & Gamble, GSK, Old Navy and Cisco. On this episode, we identify areas where improv can help community pros, including:

  • How active listening applies to words on a computer screen
  • Turning difficult members into valued contributors
  • Creating an environment where people feel comfortable being honest

Big Quotes

“There’s a difference between winning and hoping for a solution. I think a lot of interactions that fail, fail because one or both parties were intent on winning the interaction, rather than collaborating together to look for a solution for that conflict. … When you’re intent on winning, you’re likely pushing your own agenda. You have a limited amount of time. You want to focus on your own success. That’s where you’re at. If you are willing to be present, listen and [understand] where the other person is coming from, then you’re more likely to reach a solution together.” -@zachward

“You can try your best to steer people in the right direction within your communities, but ultimately, there are individuals that will accept that and take the helpful direction, and then there are people who will not be satisfied, no matter what we do. I think it took me a long time to get to the place where I realized that. I knew that there were people who would never be satisfied, regardless of my positive intentions. But I finally got to the place where I relieved myself of that responsibility. Their negativity is not my responsibility.” -@zachward

“If something changes [in a community] or something is not what someone expects, [the] pushback is regret. They have invested a significant amount of time in something that didn’t give them back what they hoped it would have. And it’s not our place to judge whether our thing should give them that or shouldn’t give them that, but just really to understand that, on the very core level, they’ve invested whatever amount of time for themselves in this community and space.” -@zachward

“If you [have] the presence of negativity, that can permeate a room and can permeate a community just the same. … [This can] normalize people’s contributions. People will say, ‘I don’t want this negativity, so I will only post the most vanilla content.’ And then you’ve sort of normalized the conversation in your community. Everything is in a narrow range of what would be generally accepted by other people in the community. This is the equivalent to having the most boring house party. Everyone has a drink and everyone is spread out in their own corners of the room wondering what fun thing is happening in other places.” -@zachward

“You receive a lot of suggestions, and you can’t do them all. Realistically, you probably shouldn’t even do a majority of them. But the way that you respond to that feedback, and the way you allow the community to respond to that feedback, has the potential to scare away future feedback. But also, maybe more importantly, lower the quality of the ideas and the thoughts that you receive in general, as people may be less likely to come up with something that’s unique or go out on a limb of be fully honest with you. Or they may just become yes people. That’s not going to lead to any progress.” -@patrickokeefe

“When we teach ‘yes,’ we teach ‘yes’ from a space of ‘I will support another person’s ideas, no matter what it is, and I will do my best to heighten and explore that idea towards the goal of understanding and possible collaboration.’ In the spirit and philosophy of that, I want to celebrate the fact that they contributed not a great idea, but that they contributed anything at all.” -@zachward

“Sometimes, we’ll get feedback at the comedy theater, and we know that we’re already working on it. Part of you feels this need to say, ‘Oh, I already had that idea. I’m not just doing this because you told me the idea today.’ The reason … is ego. Your ego can’t handle someone who suggested an idea, convincing themselves that the only reason you did it is because they told you to, when in reality, if it was a good idea and you’re doing it, who cares why you’re doing it? At the end of the day, is the idea going to do a wonderful thing for your organization? Is it going to help your company more forward? … I came from a place that, at least in the comedy world, there are a million comics working at companies all across the country, and they crack jokes and they forward memes, and they think that they’re hilarious. There are a very small percentage who are actually executing on those funny, creative ideas, and making a career out of that creativity. You have to think about ideas and execution of ideas as separate things and give yourself permission to let people feel great … that they contributed an idea that they’re going to see happen in three weeks because you already have it in process, rather than shut them down because you were doing it before they said it.” -@zachward

“[When people are trying to poison your community, the] real difficult thing is to be in that space where you don’t want to loudly defend yourself and go on the defensive about a crisis, because in most cases, when someone is trying to poison the community, going on the defensive is exactly what that group or person is looking for.” -@zachward

“In moments of crisis, … I look to a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., [about] ‘accepting finite disappointment, but never losing infinite hope.’ This [is having the] presence of mind to say that the things that are impacting us today are disappointing and, if they cause us to become negative or become hardened or let our ego take over so that we tweet, at 3 a.m., unreasonable tweets – say, for example – if we let our ego take over, then unfortunately, that disappointment has started to rule our behavior. The crisis has ruled our behavior, rather than us, as a community manager, effectively managing that crisis.” -@zachward

About Zach Ward

Zach Ward, chief optimist for YesAndLife, owner and artistic Director of DSI Comedy, founder and executive producer of the NC Comedy Arts Festival, has consulted and delivered programs internationally for clients, including TEDx, Creative Mornings, Procter & Gamble, Comcast, Motorola, Cisco, Biogen, GSK, Old Navy, YMCA and Citrix. Zach has developed a passion for applied improvisation and comedy over the last 20 years and, for more than a decade, an obsession with compassion, empathy, organizational development and business. In addition to professional speaking, coaching and team building, Zach provides comedy talent for events all across the country. He practices “Yes, And” with his own employees, and with his 4 year-old son, every day.

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