Do you know what’s funny? How techniques for surviving the spotlight on stage can help us find our feet in the real world
I improvise comedy for a living – you’ve probably seen people like me on Whose Line Is It Anyway? We go on stage in groups of four or five, with the goal of making people laugh – but with absolutely no script whatsoever. The audience shout out suggestions, and from that point we are on our own, playing games and making up sketches.
In truth, it’s hard to think of a more uncertain or anxiety-inducing situation! But, believe it or not, I go on stage in a state of calm confidence. A confidence won both through experience, and by the internalisation of some simple rules of thumb that allow me to dampen my fears and find my creativity. And the reason I’m sharing this with you, is because I’ve used the same tools off-stage to feel less anxious and more empowered in my day-to-day life, both in my relationships and at work.
You might be thinking: ‘Hang on, what can stage improvisation teach us about life? After all, life isn’t a comedy show.’ And that’s true! But isn’t most of our life improvised? We’re improvising in conversations, when we pursue new projects, when our train is cancelled – essentially always thinking on our feet and problem-solving. My improv world doesn’t just offer us a useful metaphor to think of these challenges in a new way, it also provides a simple and proven methodology to tackle a world of change, with poise and equanimity – to be confident despite the curve balls thrown at us by life.
With that in mind, here are five useful tips from improv you can use right now to bolster your confidence in daily life.
1. Remember, it’s not about you
When I first got into improv, I assumed it was all about what you say. I thought the pressure was on me to be as clever and funny as possible – and it was suffocating. What I would soon learn is that improv actually begins with listening. All your focus should be on the other person, on supporting their choices, and trying to make them look good.
We often say: “If you want to get out of your head, then you’ve got to get into something else.” That something else is your scene partner. If you’re feeling anxious, it’s because you’re focused on what you’re saying or doing, so really try to listen to the other person. We’re often not good at this; we don’t listen, we wait to speak, pre-planning what we are going to say in our head. Instead, stay present and listen right to the end of what the other person is saying – then your response will come much more naturally.
2. Let yourself be obvious
In social situations, we often put pressure on ourselves to be interesting and original – no wonder they make us anxious! But improvisers focus instead on being obvious. This is about simply saying what is clear to you in the moment. You’ll find that not only does this get the conversation flowing, but what is obvious to you is often not obvious to other people. So, you sound interesting by accident!
Being obvious can be as simple as saying: “Your necklace is pretty.” Your conversation partner can now react (“Oh this, yeah, I bought it last week”), and you’re off. People who sound fluent in conversations are often just those who let themselves be obvious.
3. Accept and build off what you’re given
You might think: ‘OK, being obvious can help me start conversations, but what then? What if I can’t think of anything to say next?’ Improvisers use a tool that helps here: we try to say “Yes, and…” This is about listening to the last thing that was said, and building on that. So, if they say, “Oh this, yeah, I bought it last week,” you could respond: “Where from?” Again, another obvious thing to say, but it simply accepts and builds off the last idea they shared, and keeps the conversation flowing with almost zero effort.
“Isn’t most of our life improvised? We’re improvising in conversations, when we pursue new projects, when our train is cancelled – essentially always thinking on our feet and problem-solving”
4. Remember the goal is not perfection
We often think in life – and especially when we communicate – that our goal is to be perfect. Not only is that unrealistic, it’s also not how we view other people. To be more confident, you need to build a healthier relationship with your mistakes. It’s not the fact they happen, but how we react to them that’s important. As jazz musician Miles Davis once said: “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” Improvisers treat their mistakes as gifts. When you mess up, ask yourself: ‘How can I use this?’
5. It’s not all on you to have the answers
In meetings or conversations, the pressure isn’t on you to bring the idea or solve everything – it’s a team effort. We have a phrase in improv that emphasises this: “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.” We are trying to build a metaphorical cathedral in the show, a big, complex, beautiful thing. But we get there by bringing just one brick at a time. All you have to do when it’s your turn to speak is to focus on adding one small thing. Think of your job as not to be the smartest person in the room, but simply to keep the energy going. That quietens your inner critic, and helps you contribute.
Hero image: Photography | Rah Petherbridge Photography
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