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Leaders of Schenectady's MopCo explain benefits of improv to business people

Leaders of Schenectady's MopCo explain benefits of improv to business people

Improv theater as a model for the business world
Leaders of Schenectady's MopCo explain benefits of improv to business people
Mopco Improv Theater co-directors Kit Koppett and Michael Burns use stories and improvisation to show how to build leadership.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — Unscripted improv theater has many parallels in the fast-moving world of business, MopCo’s co-founders told a business audience last week.

The improvisational theater on Jay Street is home to the Mop & Bucket Improv Company as well as Koppett & Co., a consulting firm that uses the principles of improv to boost businesses’ effectiveness.

Koppett & Co. founder Kat Koppett and Mop & Bucket founder Michael Burns gave an animated demonstration of their fusion of business and improv at the New York BizLab during one of the entrepreneurial lunches it presents with Clarkson University.

It’s not as unlikely a connection as one might think, Burns said: “We really do believe that improv is essentially a philosophy, and the tenets of improv represent skills that can make you better at all sorts of things — on stage, off stage, in your personal life.”

Burns had the audience pair off without preparation and count off in twos as fast as they could.

Many in the audience flubbed one or more of the counts, but Burns also noticed a lot of relaxed, smiling faces after the exercise ended.

The point is to try something new and fail, he said, and to not be afraid of either trying or failing.

It’s why babies are able to learn to walk and talk, Koppett said, and why startup entrepreneurs are able to start up. They try, fail, and build on failure.

“How to get comfortable being uncomfortable is another way of saying that,” she said. “It’s not the failure we’re going for, but the willingness to take risks, and if we do fail, be able to embrace the risk-taking and try again.”

Next, Koppett pointed out the benefits of improv when networking.

“How many people relish networking with strangers?” she asked.

Burns estimated that just 7 percent of the audience raised their hands in response. He said a lot of people, including himself, are introverts, and just prefer not to talk to strangers. But effective networking demands it.

“One of the principles of Improv is ‘dare to be boring,’ because what we think is boring to us is authentic,” Koppett said, “and when we try to be interesting or try to be clever, often what that really is is being inauthentic or affected, which is really much less interesting and much less real.”

Burns added: “My experience is, the really boring people think they’re fascinating.”

While Koppett & Co. offers one more approach among many in the business coaching/consulting world, it has gained some traction, with clients ranging from small local companies to international giants. Formats range from individual coaching to group learning, topics range from engaging a large audience to shifting mindsets.

One point Koppett and Burns made in their presentation Thursday and make in their coaching sessions is the importance of taking the focus away from oneself. An elevator speech about yourself isn’t always the best way to make a pitch. Koppett suggested the opposite.

“If I’m focusing on you, and listening to you, and hearing you, and making you look good, all of the sudden I’m fascinating,” Koppett said. “I’m delightful to talk to.”

When improv actors do that, they’re building a scene, she said.

When both sides of a conversation do that, they’re building a business relationship.

Ask questions without yes/no answers to prompt answers longer than “yes” or “no,” Burns added.

In another exercise, they had the audience pair off by twos again as storyteller and listener. The listener interjected a random word every 10 seconds or so, and the storyteller had to integrate that word into the story. The heavy buzz of conversation as the audience did this was interrupted with laughter here and there.

It is not a common real-world situation, most people don’t interrupt with a single irrelevant word every 10 seconds. Yet, it helps the listener to actively listen rather than just wait to speak, Burns said, and teaches the speaker to react to unexpected developments without having the pitch go off the rails.

That’s a very important skill in salesmanship, Koppett said, and the best salespeople will take advantage of such an interruption to further tailor the pitch to the person who made the interruption.

She said life itself can be improv theater.

“Most of the time what we do is habitual and relatively scripted. What we help our clients to is two things: 

“One is enhancing our awareness of our performance so that it is a little less unconscious and scripted and habitual, so that we’re improvising a little more and going on autopilot a little less and so that we can track the impact of the choices we’re making.

“The second thing we do is help people expand their range of options. So that if the habitual choices that we make are not getting us the impact that we want, we have other choices.”

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