Use improv to learn to communicate with impact

By Jeffrey Kudisch
Monday, November 29, 2010; 18

He's a Broadway actor, so my brother's day job is quite different from my role as executive director of the Office of Career Services at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and my work as a faculty member and coach with our executive MBA (EMBA) students. But there are striking similarities. "Stage" presence is really important for success in business. If leaders were to treat every interview, elevator pitch, presentation and group meeting as if they were in the spotlight, their performance would really stand out.

I took my brother's advice to one of my then-EMBA students, Kim Gifford, the deputy director at a Northern Virginia-based medical professional society. One of her biggest goals was to speak with more impact and confidence. I encouraged her to break out of her comfort zone and take an improv class -- what better way to really push her limits?

With zero previous acting experience, Gifford reluctantly signed up for classes at a community theater in Northern Virginia. She quickly found herself really enjoying the exercises that had her communicating differently than she'd ever done, reacting to whatever was thrown her way (Quick! Say you're a Mexican Jumping Bean expert . . . communicate that on the fly!) and adjusting her style to flow with others.

"Good improv is all about relationships and a give-and-take with the other characters," Gifford says. "You have to take their words and actions and build on them for the overall good of the scene, always pushing the scene forward without stealing the scene for yourself."

"Improv helped me be more nimble in the workplace. I tend to be overly analytical -- I want to hear the facts, absorb them, think about it, then respond," she says. "Improv taught me to condense these thought processes and quickly respond. It also reinforced that my response must facilitate the situation -- not shut it down."

Kim says the improv class boosted her confidence and added to a great change in her presence at work, helping her move from a tactical level to a strategic level and had her boss noticing her leadership when engaging with her organization's board members, for example.

But taking up acting isn't the only thing you can do to improve your skills to communicate with impact.

Keep in mind the three P's to communicating with impact:

-- Preparation. First impressions happen almost instantly, so if you want to make a good one, the first few minutes of a job interview, a presentation or any first meeting are crucial.

-- Poise. Be confident and come across organized. Don't let silence fluster you. Use it as a moment to gather your thoughts and formulate good questions.

-- Passion. Convey your enthusiasm. You can even be a shy person, but you can still pinpoint what you're passionate about and project it when you communicate.

If you're not quite communicating with impact yet, how can you improve? In addition to hitting up your local theater or comedy club for that improv class, give these ideas a try:

-- Enlist the help of a learning partner, preferably someone who has the communication skills you hope to emulate. Try role-playing. Identify specific behaviors -- voice inflection, hand gestures, eye contact, volume, speed, gaps in speech ("ums," "ahs" and "likes") -- and ask your partner to monitor them as you practice together, realizing that what you are doing is the first step to improving.

-- Join a professional organization, such as Toastmasters. Find a local chapter that fits your needs and get involved. It can help you become a more polished, confident speaker in a safe, professional environment.

-- Identify a role model -- a leader, historical figure, fictional character or mentor. Watch videos of great speakers, pinpoint what makes them great, and try to mimic it. Ask the good communicators you work and network with for tips.

-- Read to children to improve your delivery. Use a different voice for every character, be animated -- it will help you translate some of that charisma to your presenting skills and you can experiment in a safe environment.

-- Do your research. There are hundreds of great books and articles available on how to improve your communication skills.

If you really want to improve your communications, set a specific goal and work to achieve it, and be willing to experiment and take risks. If you're feeling uncomfortable, that probably means you're learning. Don't be afraid to fail. Jeffrey Kudisch is managing director of the Office of Career Services at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business and a faculty expert in leadership, negotiations and human capital management. He has a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology and he co-founded Personnel Assessment Systems Inc., a human resource consulting firm specializing in executive assessment and leadership development.

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