3 Improv Principles To Boost Your Creativity and Approach Any Challenge

By Lisa Pertoso on January 09, 2024

Feel stuck on a work or life project? 

I believe everyone already has the answers inside them, sometimes you just need a creative boost. 

As a creative coach and comedian I’m an expert in doing, failing, learning and then whipping up those insights into exercises to support others. 

Since the era when CDs were the coolest way to hear music, I’ve been helping individuals and organizations follow their fears to get unstuck. 

Below I share my three simple improv-based tips to jumpstart your creative self today: 

  • Check in with yourself

  • Embrace and build on your reality

  • View mistakes as gifts

...If you’re hungry for more personalized support, I offer 1-to-1 chats on Expert Session from 30-90 minutes. 

Why Improv and What’s in it for You?

“Cheesecake Factory. Thank you!” My team and I shout in unison after asking our audience for a suggestion of anything at all. I make eye contact with my fellow players, as we step downstage. 

“Look at the size of this menu!”

“I’m so hungry, I can’t decide!”

“Me either. This menu is HUGE!”

One player raises his arm high above his head as he turns a giant-sized menu page. I catch the page, which is so heavy that I have to squat down low hold it and I grunt. Sharing focus, we take turns and make exclamations. And so begins our improv show, a 30-minute play we are creating on the spot. 

With no script, no plans, we have no idea what will happen and that’s the point. We play using agreed upon principles and trust that we will discover the story together. 

For the past thirteen years, I’ve studied improv–an unplanned, unscripted form of theater that performers create in the moment– as well as musical improv (we make up songs!), sketch comedy, storytelling, and satire writing at NYC’s top theaters like The Magnet, Annoyance, The P.I.T, and Brooklyn Comedy Collective.

For 91 trillion hours (and counting) I’ve performed on house and indie teams in prime-time slots on those theaters’ mainstages, and at 11:05pm slots in dank bar basements with no stage. To be honest,I'd perform a show on an anthill, a molehill, or even the hill in your backyard. 

Improv is an extreme workout for your creativity muscles, and like any muscles they must be flexed often or risk morphing into jello. 

Many smart neuroscientists who aren’t me have found that play increases dopamine, which opens the learning centers of the brain making us more creative, flexible, and better at solving problems. Improv, a form of play, can help you win at life and also at work. 

“We’ve moved beyond the industrial economy and the knowledge economy. We’re now in the innovation economy. Creativity is a necessary skill to be successful in the work world.” 

- Dr. Gerard Puccio, Head of the Center for Applied Imagination at SUNY Buffalo

Since I despise going to the gym, I keep improvising to stay creative. I practice and perform regularly, and take workshops to stay sharp. I accept that my triceps will always jiggle.

How Improv Saved Me

Improv found me when I was at my lowest. One rainy November evening in 2009, my serious boyfriend – who I thought was the Harry to my Sally – walked out of my apartment after a fight and never came back. 

After months of depression and anxiety I decided to move my body to get out of my head, choosing experiences that scared me. Skydiving (once is enough), Snowboarding (falling hurts), and an improv theater class.

Within my first hour of intro to improv I felt playful, joyful, and a little less stuck. Also, improv posed minimal risk to breaking a femur so I kept going back. 

Since then, I have approached life and work with an improv mindset and have experienced the benefits first-hand. 

Improv has helped me grow into a more creative, adaptable, empathetic, collaborative, and most importantly, a more resilient person. 

As I began to thrive, I knew I needed to share these insights and tools with people and organizations – I am a nerdy facilitator, learning designer, and coach after all! Here come those hot tips I promised...

3 Core Improv Principles for Your Work & Life

Improv is a performing art where players create a story out of nothing. There are no props, no scripts, no pre-planning. If all performers are self-aware, listen, and build on each other’s ideas the audience will witness magic.

Improv is not about being funny, it's about being truthful in the moment, leaving your ego at the door, and helping your fellow players shine.

Grab a paper and pen to capture your ideas for each principle.

1. Take Care of Yourself

Put your oxygen mask on first. You can’t tackle a challenge or support others until you support yourself first. 
When experienced improvisers enter a scene they’re trained to choose an emotion (happy, sad, frustrated, etc) or a character trait (a unique voice or body position). This serves as the lens through which their character will respond to whatever happens. 

Life is pretty much as a series of improv shows, where we’re often thrown into situations where we don’t know the outcome. And we have to handle them before we feel ready. 

What lens can you choose that will help you respond to a project, person, or situation?

If I need to feel confident I put my hands on my hips for several minutes. I’m the weird lady who smiles like a clown in a public bathroom mirror to feel more relaxed. When I want to be more open-minded I uncross my legs and arms, and ground both feet on the floor.

2. Adopt the 'Yes, And' Mindset

Let go of your agenda. Agree with the reality presented and see how you can add value. 

Improvisers are excellent at being present and listening actively. They agree with what their scene partners are saying and doing, and add more information to build out the story. 

I may open a scene with: “Hey Sarah, thanks for inviting me on your new boat!” 

“Anytime, now that I’m retired I have more time to sail.” My partner has agreed that we’re on her boat. 

When we feel stuck in interpersonal relationships, or on daunting tasks it may be because we’re denying reality. If only we had more money or more time, or a different boss, or friends who had points of views that aligned with mine…

How can you accept what’s happening, and add something to move the situation forward?

‘Yes, and’ is not about saying yes to everything and giving up your boundaries. I don’t always agree with everyone but I try my best to validate people’s feelings to facilitate mutual understanding. 

Instead of lamenting that I don’t have enough time to work on my book, I accept my constraints.  My book is on hold until my child is older, and until then I’m writing shorter satire pieces because they energize me.  

3. There Are No Mistakes

Reframe mistakes as learning experiences and gifts that help you grow. 

Because there are no plans, plots, or scripts in an improv show every action a player takes is right – including mistakes. For example: 

My scene partner hands me a make-believe cup of juice. I sip it, but moments later flail my hands above my head. Eek, where’s the juice? I, the player, forgot about it.

“Oh you spilled juice on your shirt! Let me get a towel.” My amazing partner responds to my mistake.

The most fun improv scenes both to watch and perform are action-oriented, and where mistakes don’t exist. 

What if you approached your challenge with the belief you can’t make a mistake? What would you do next? 

Any choice you make to get unstuck is an opportunity to learn. Did your action fail? Great, you have more information to make the next move. 

How many drafts have I written of this blog post? Five-ish. Were my earlier four mistakes? Nope, they guided me to where this piece needed to go. Also, 18 cups of coffee doesn’t hurt! The only mistake you can make is inaction. 

How Can I Help You Get Unstuck?

You got a taste of how three core improv principles can boost your creativity, and help you think differently about a challenge. I know they work because I practice an improv mindset daily on my own, and when coaching others and leading group learning experiences. 

 Want to dig deeper into your challenge?

I bring 20+ years experience in professional development, experience design, and consulting, and 13 years of performing comedy and writing satire. Let’s tackle your challenge together. 

I’ll spark your creativity to help you view your problem with fresh eyes. Integrating tools from improv, sketch comedy, satire writing, and experiential learning you’ll leave our session with tangible exercises to practice, and ideas to put into motion. 

Some examples of how I’ve supported others: 

  • Best practices on how to lead brainstorming / ideation sessions 

  • Speaking / presentation / facilitation tips to increase confidence 

  • Energizing ice breakers for more effective meetings and gatherings 

  • Fun, creative activities for the solopreneur who needs a routine break 

Follow the fear to find your creative self. 

Book an Expert Session with me - https://expertsession.com/experts/followthefear

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