Your boss interrupts your presentation with a question you hadn't considered. A spontaneous debate springs up at a family gathering. You're asked to address a touchy issue with a mutual friend. Sure, your life seems scheduled on paper. But no matter how much you plan, every day brings unforeseen situations that can catch you off-guard -- and leave you feeling tongue-tied.
You can't prepare for those surprising moments (like when a friend asks you point-blank whether you think she should elope), but you can improve your ability to handle them. And who better to ask for think-on-your-feet tips than the people who do it for a living? Unlike actors in a traditional play, improvisational performers step out onto the stage with no scripted lines, no costumes, no set. With little more than gut instinct, they rely on quick thinking, teamwork, and a few audience suggestions to create a compelling show. "Improv simply means unscripted performance, which is essentially what our lives are," says writer, director, and improvisational performer and coach Jacqueline Kabat. "You may have a vague idea of what your day may bring you. But let's face it, you never can be too sure."
The same skills that serve improv actors so well -- listening, picking up on cues, approaching interactions positively -- can pay off in your day-to-day life, too. We gathered the best insider advice from Kabat and seasoned performer Matt Chapuran, and then we included real-life scenarios from career coach Maggie Mistal, host of "Making a Living" on Martha Stewart Living Radio, Sirius 112. Using their strategies, you'll meet the unpredictable situations of everyday life with aplomb. And who knows? You may even get a laugh or two.
Let the Scene Unfold
Because it's not scripted, the success of an improv show depends wholly on honest, immediate reaction to the present moment. This can be hard if the improv actors need for control kicks in-an impulse that can magnify stress and, ultimately, work against you."In improv, we call it ‘steering the scene, " says Kabat. "When one person attempts to control everything that happens, it signifies a distrust for his fellow players." Onstage or off, the only thing you can really control is your response-and that comes with focusing on what the other person is saying. The more clearly you tune in to the natural unfolding of the conversation, the better off you'll be in moving the discourse forward.
Try it: Stay in the moment. When you're in the middle of a serious discussion (or even a not-so-serious one), resist scripting the conversation; let go of control, focus on the other person, and then on your honest response. For instance, say you're at a party and you meet someone new. Eager to come across as witty and appealing, you may get so caught up in what you'll say next that you miss what the other person is saying. Instead, practice giving him or her your full attention.
Make the other guy look good. Want to know one of the biggest mistakes improv actors can make? It's sabotaging collaboration by trying to be the star. What works far better for everyone, including you, says Kabat, is to make others look good. "I call it putting spirit over ego. Rather than try to be the funniest or smartest performer, I tell them to respond to the other person as truthfully as possible," she says. "Stealing the scene tends to compromise the effectiveness of the show-not to mention make your partner uncomfortable."
Translated into real life, Mistal says that we often operate under the assumption that if we make someone else look good, we will then look bad by comparison-and, in turn, by making someone else look bad, we come off smelling like roses. In fact, just the opposite occurs. "Passing blame as a way of saving face works in reverse," she says. "People never forget when they were thrown under the bus."
Try it: Spread good gossip. Find opportunities not just to praise people directly and publicly, but to share their gifts, skills, or accomplishments with others. In so doing, you become the bearer of good news-and you also come off as the kind of person who's big enough to acknowledge and appreciate others' efforts and abilities.
Trust your gut. In an effort to make valuable contributions, we often suppress our first and best instinct. "We tend to put our own ideas down as too obvious or stupid -- like if it's my idea, it mustn't be very good," says Chapuran. "This is often not the case at all." In improv, unique ideas don't come from trying harder, he says; they emerge naturally. "You don't have to out-unique yourself," he says. "I've wasted time and good ideas trying to be funnier, and I didn't have to."
Mistal agrees that we tend to live under the impression that success is achieved only through sweat and hard work. "If anything, the fact that something comes easily to you could be a sign that it's the right thing," she says. "When you get into the flow and rhythm of what you're meant to be doing, it comes naturally." It shouldn't have to be a struggle.
Try it: Go with it. Don't deep-six your first idea just because it came to you quickly and effortlessly. Instead of negating it, run with it and see where it takes you. Try to resist the notion that you need to be super smart or creative every single time you open your mouth, says Chapuran. "You would be surprised at how sometimes simply stating the obvious is the most valuable thing you can do."
Text by Terri Trespicio