(First published in July 2001)
Improv games are activities adapted from improvisational theater. In these activities, the actors do not use a script but create the dialogue and action as they perform.
I have been using improv games as an instructional tool for several years. One of my favorite improv games is The World's Worst which involves participants acting out comical blunders of people in different professions. For a long time, I have used this game as a fun energizer. Recently I discovered a powerful instructional application. As a result, during the past couple of months, I have played more than a dozen specific versions of this game depicting the world's worst professionals in a variety of routine and emergency situations. My scenarios include the world's worst facilitator, trainer, safety inspector, help-line operator, story teller, change agent, workshop attendee, diversity trainer, and conflict mediators.
The power of this improv game as a training technique resides in the uncanny ability of the human brain to zoom in on a variety of mistakes in any field. Once we identify such mistakes, it is easy to figure out how to avoid them. This approach is equivalent to the powerful double-reversal technique in creative problem solving. The effectiveness of the approach is demonstrated in the titles of many best-selling books (example: Women Who Love Too Much) that focus on mistakes that people make.
To identify effective behaviors associated with different on-the-job situations.
15 - 20 minutes plus 10 - 30 minutes for debriefing
4 - 5 volunteers from a larger group
A doormat or a piece of carpet placed in front of the room. This serves as the “platform”.
Invite participants. Explain that you need a few willing volunteers for an improv theater activity. Point out that the activity will be a lot of fun.
Position the actors. Ask them to stand behind the platform, facing the audience.
Brief the actors. Identify an occupation that the actors are to portray. Explain that you will briefly describe a job situation. Any actor who is ready to portray the blundering behavior of a person in this situation should step on the platform and act it out. This portrayal should be brief and comical. Actors don't have to take turns, but whoever feels ready to step on the platform should do so. After all actors have portrayed this situation, you will call out another situation. Actors will repeat the same procedure. You will continue the game until you have explored a wide variety of situations.
Describe the first situation. Use a phrase or a short sentence. Remind the actors that anyone who wants to act out the behavior of the world's worst job holder in this situation should step on the platform.
Model if necessary. After a reasonable time, if no actor steps on the platform, you do it. Demonstrate a suitable (but not too brilliant) portrayal. Then wait for the other actors to do their stuff. Applaud each portrayal.
Move on to the next situation. Describe this situation briefly. (I usually prepare a list of situations, but end up with spontaneous ideas.) Wait for the actors to do their portrayals. Take your turn, preferably somewhere in the middle of the sequence.
Continue the activity. Call out new and different situations. Try to cover a variety of normal and unusual situations. For a change of pace, invite audience members (and the actors) to suggest some situations.
Conclude the activity. Stop the drama when you feel that you have covered a sufficiently diverse set of situations. Thank the actors and lead a round of applause.
Debrief the activity. This critical component is what converts a fun activity into an instructional exercise. Ask participants to brainstorm a list of Dos and Don'ts based on the earlier portrayals. (Review the debrief game, THIRTY-FIVE for an effective strategy that can be used in this situation.)
Recently, we played The World's Worst Salesperson with a group of financial-service professionals. Here are some of the situations and a couple of sample lines from the actors:
Greeting the customer
- Your name sounds Jewish. So what do you think of the Palestinian situation?
- Hey let's not waste time with small talk. How about signing this order form right now?
Analyzing customer's needs
- What do you want?
- You may not know this, but you sure need our Model 114-HB.
Describing your product
- This is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Forget the details. Let me tell you that this gizmo is going to change your life.
- Here's our 300-page reference manual. We are proud of this baby. Let me walk you through the book, one page at a time.
Customer yawns at the middle of your presentation
- I have the same effect on my husband.
- Want some Java? You need to focus on what I am saying because the good part is yet to come.
Customer interrupts with a question
- Don't ever do that again. You will make me forget my sales points. I'll take questions later.
- If you stop interrupting me, I'll get done faster. I'll tell you everything you want to know in the correct sequence.
Customer explains that she has another meeting scheduled in 5 minutes
- They can wait. This is more important.
- You better make time for this presentation. Otherwise, you'll be sorry.
Customer claims that the price is too high
- (Winking at the customer) Tell you what. You help me get this order and there will be something in it for you.
- Okay, let me give you a 60 percent discount. MasterCard or Visa?
Concluding your sales call (without an order)
- If you call me with an order within the next 30 minutes, I'll throw in a microwave egg poacher.
- I don't hold any grudges. But if you ever get downsized, don't call me.