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Improving Our Work Through Improv

By , Copywriter, Hanson Dodge

Hanson Dodge hosted an agency-wide improv training early in 2018, focusing on the development of creative collaboration across the team. Mike Betette, HD’s resident copywriter and comedian, discusses how this training differs from stage training, as well as improv training's contribution to the work we produce for our clients. 

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I’ve been performing improv for 18 years. Professionally for 15. I’ve been teaching it for about 10. I’ve worked for Second City and made my living as the artistic director for an improv and stand-up comedy theater in Los Angeles. But when I was approached about teaching an improv workshop for my entire office I was skeptical. Teaching improv for business felt a bit like a fad, a way to give executives access to more buzzwords that don’t really mean anything. Sure, us creatives can use the skills to help come up with more big ideas for campaigns, but what about everyone else? How would everyone sitting through this three-hour workshop help us create work? Anyway, most people just see improv as making puns or trying out stand-up jokes they thought of in the shower.

But the more I spoke with my executive creative director (ECD) about improv and the skills we use, I really came around. In improv, the main skills are to “listen” and “build.” Yes, those skills help create exciting, new, fun ideas, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

In improv we spend a lot of time listening. Not thinking “when can I talk,” but really listening. Doing what we call “full-body listening.” Hearing not just the words, but the body language, the subtext. What is really being said and how do we extract the most information out of it? In addition to listening better to our co-workers, or managers, a major key to creating great work is clients and agencies truly listening to each other, not just talking at each other. Agencies listening to what clients are really saying and what they really want so we can deliver not just what they ask for, but what they really, truly, deep down have been looking for (and maybe didn’t even realize it). And clients listening to what their agency can truly offer instead of thinking about their own preconceived notions (which might have been small potatoes). This leads to better work, more trust between agencies and clients, and hopefully fewer rounds of revisions (which means money saved!).

The second skill is to “build.” Together. We build off each other’s ideas to make something bigger than the sum of its parts, as they say. Not judging it and thinking, “I don’t like that idea, I’m going to fix it,” or “I have my own idea.” Instead thinking, “how do I make that idea great by taking it and running with it?” On the client and agency side there are multiple backgrounds, various expertise, and many points of view. And that’s what can make the work great, by combining all this knowledge to build one thing together. We just have to trust each other that we’re all working towards the common goal of producing incredible work we’re all proud of. To quote the improv “guru,” Del Close, “If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that.” The same goes for our co-workers, clients, agencies, prospective audiences, and sometimes ourselves.

The final piece of the puzzle is ego. And isn’t it always? We all need each other to build a full, successful campaign, and we can’t let our ego worry about whose idea was whose, or that someone asked you to go back and try it again with a different twist. Or that the idea ended up being different than you originally envisioned. We hold ourselves back from great work by thinking that we’re smarter or better than each other. Instead of “why aren’t we doing this the way I think it should be done,“ a better choice is “how do I help make this the best work it can be?”

Because of our improv training I think we’ve all been more conscious of actively listening. Especially in meetings. Not selectively hearing what we want to hear or putting our own spin on it, but really listening to what other people are saying, getting us all on the same page. In a brainstorming session after our improv training, people who used to be afraid to throw out an idea because they thought it was half-baked, or were worried it was “dumb,” went for it. They trusted that instead of judging it, others were going to listen and help build it into something great, and we did. Because ultimately we’re all on the same team. And if we can all really listen to each other, and build together, without ego, the work can be truly inspiring and powerful. In improv and advertising. Sure, this might take longer than a three-hour workshop (or one blog post) to learn, but it’s a good start.

Mike Betette, Copywriter, Hanson Dodge

Mike is a copywriter at Hanson Dodge creating exciting and fresh ideas to help brands express themselves and speak directly to their target audience. His writing has led to developing everything from fun radio and web spots to heartfelt anthems. Before moving to Milwaukee Mike was a writer in Los Angeles as well as the artistic director of a comedy theater.

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