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Tina Fey’s Rules For Improv… And Your Career

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Lessons on the workplace from Tina Fey. 

By Bryce Christiansen (Blogger, YouTern)

As I finished reading Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, I came to a realization.

We often don’t give comedians enough credit for their business smarts, and Tina Fey is no exception.

As I read her “humor/biography” book, I wasn’t expecting to come away with too many things I could apply at work…but I was wrong.

You see, Tina Fey has come from the biggest business training school on the planet. Show Business.

Sure, a lot of her book was about her life, her take on the world, and what got her where she is today, but one section in particular caught my attention for this blog.

It was her reflections on improvisation and the workplace.

Tina Fey’s Rules For Improv…And the Workplace

Rule #1 — Agree

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES.

When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt.

But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

The Lesson: Respect What Your Partner has Created

Tina Fey obviously doesn’t think you’ll agree with everything you hear, but the real lesson is in “respecting what your partner has created.” The benefit of “agreement” is an open mind, an environment where ideas can thrive and innovation is welcome.

We all know what it’s like working with the guy who breaks rule #1. You’ve heard him, he’s the guy who says, “No, it won’t work,” “That’s impossible,” “Nope, we can’t do that.” Not so much fun working with them, is it?

Rule #2 — Not Only Say Yes… Say Yes And

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own.

If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill.

But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

The Lesson: Contribute Something

So how does this apply to work?

When Tina Fey says, “Say yes and” it means to contribute. Don’t be that guy in the office who sits in meetings with nothing to add to the conversation.

Take what your team has created and add something to it.

Rule #3 — Make Statements

This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers

We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who says things like “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up!” and “I felt menaced when Terry raised her voice.

Lesson: Don’t Ask Questions All the Time

Statements are about confidence. Asking nothing but questions is draining. It’s excluding yourself from being part of the solution, it’s building obstacles instead of bridges, it’s throwing the ox in the mire and stealing the plow to get him out.

Rule #4 — There Are No Mistakes… Only Opportunities

If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what?

Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field.

In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful, happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

Lesson: Stay Positive, Learn to Adapt

If you do work of any meaning, mistakes are going to happen. Imagine the difference one simple change in attitude like this can make on having a positive work environment.

Just like improv, not every project will go as planned. You can take the amateur approach; stop the scene, destroy the momentum, and start over. Or you can be a pro; adapt to the change, make it your own, and do something greater.

Work is a Stage

As I close, I can’t help thinking work has more in common with improv than I even first realized.

We all have behavior that comes naturally to us. We might like to take things slow, mingle with friends, or have alone time.

And it’s not always advantageous to behave this way at work. So we adapt.

We play some improv.

We accept things that come our way…even though we don’t like it.

We add our personal touch as projects come our way…to make work more enjoyable.

We make mistakes…and learn to roll with it.

In business, it pays to have the qualities of an improvisationist. Respect. Create. Contribute. Adapt.

This post was originally posted at Balanced Work Life.

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  • http://www.theathenanetwork.com Zsa Zsa

    Love Tina Fey! And boy does that woman have the smarts. These are all great tips. Love this — “In business, it pays to have the qualities of an improvisationist. Respect. Create. Contribute. Adapt.” Thanks!

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  • http://www.handsongourmet.com molly

    i read this out loud to my employees. i give it to every new person we hire. it’s great advice. i believe in being message positive at all times and this reinforces that approach.

  • Mike

    If you like this, I highly recommend “Improv Wisdom” by Stanford Professor Patricia Ryan Madson. It’s a fabulous, wise book and, yes, a good guide for healthy, happy business. (http://improvwisdom.com)

  • http://www.balancedworklife.com/blog Bryce Christiansen

    Thanks for sharing my article on your site.

    I am flattered and have seen an incredible response because of it.

    Bryce

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