Why Scientists Like Applied Improv: A Theory

Why Scientists Like Applied Improv: A Theory

Last spring, the New York Times wrote about the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, where Mr. Alda (and presumably others) teach improv to scientists to help them communicate better. Alda explains why: “Not jokes, not cleverness. It’s the contact with the other person.” Amen, Alan Alda!

I love hearing this insight about applied improv from a man whose most famous character was the king of jokey quips (Hawkeye Pierce on the TV show M*A*S*H, for anyone who post-dates this show from the three-channel era!).

We’ve talked to many people about Applied Improv who assume the biggest fans of what we do are ad agencies, creative-types, and business renegades.

However, in our experience, it is actually quants, scientists, and the data-driven who seem to find improv practices most revelatory.

I have a theory about why: there’s something almost algorithmic about the practices improvisers use to connect with other people:

  1. Notice a relevant offer taking place around you.
  2. Acknowledge that offer and build on it.
  3. Repeat.

This improv way of relating contrasts with well-meaning but vague advice we’ve heard given to some brilliant people we’ve worked with who have challenges communicating their ideas to others:

  • Be a better listener
  • Consider other points of view
  • Work on your networking and relationships

It’s subjective whether or not someone has taken on the above pieces of advice. I may think I’m being a better listener, but you may continue to leave our conversations feeling unheard. So what can I do differently to improve my communication with you?

Accept more offers. Or “yes, and.”

Once you know what “offers” are (anything you can take and use), and you’ve had a little bit of education about what accepting and blocking look like, you have what amounts to a scientific equation for connecting with other people. It’s binary: You’ve either accepted an offer or you’ve blocked it.

I think this measurability is a big part of the appeal of improv to the scientifically inclined and data-driven personality.

What do you think of this theory? A bunch of hooey? An overly broad generalization? Similar to your experience? Let us know! Really!