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The Five Rules of Improv That Will Make You a Better Advertiser

Travis Sharp By Travis Sharp

I did two things for the first time in 1992. The first was to take a job at an ad agency (Creative Assistant, Lamar Advertising, Knoxville, TN—Go Vols!). The second was performing in my first comedy improv show (as a member of Commedia del Blah).

At the time, I didn’t connect the two. But twenty-something years later, I call on my improv skills every single day in my role as an advertising Creative Director. In fact, I believe improv has given me a set of tools that gives me a serious advantage in the ad game.

It took me twenty-plus years of training, over a thousand performances, and fairly regular bouts of onstage embarrassment to formulate these five tools at the intersection of improv and advertising. You can have them now, without all the groans from the audience:

1. Say “yes” (even when you’re thinking “no”). One of the scariest rules of improv is “Yes, and.” “Yes, and” means saying yes to every idea your stage partners create—whether you’re ready for it or not—and then building on it. This environment of accepting and uplifting allows ideas to flourish. Even poorly conceived ideas can become great when everyone jumps on board and helps build them. So when you’re brainstorming, open your mind and get on board every idea. You can always shelve it later, without ever saying “no.”

2. Listen to the audience. One of my favorite aspects of comedy improv is the immediate feedback. If we’re funny, they laugh. If we’re awful, they groan. If we’re terrible … well, they make no sound at all. This gives us the ability to tailor our performance to that night’s audience. In today’s digital media environment, we can constantly tailor our marketing messages in the same way.

3. Make random connections. The random element of improv means we’re often forced to mash unrelated ideas together. A pizza delivery guy and an astronaut walk into a bar … What happens next, if we’re open to the possibilities, can be amazing. The same is true of brainstorming ad ideas. You can avoid creative block, and circumvent hours of close-in thinking, by throwing a random element into your thinking and justifying it. “How do we advertise dog food using a toy remote-controlled airplane?” Answer that question, and it’ll take your ideas somewhere new.

4. Embrace conflict. It’s our nature to avoid conflict. But improvisers learn that we have to get our characters into trouble because you can’t tell a story without conflict. Marketers tend to be adverse to conflict when it comes to telling the stories of products or services. But Helmut Krone embraced conflict back in the ‘60s with an ad for the Volkswagen Beetle that read, “Think small.” He didn’t run from the fact that the Beetle didn’t look like other cars at the time. He relished the conflict and helped build one of the greatest consumer brands of all time. Think about your favorite brands (or your favorite improv scenes), and I promise you will find conflict.

5. Fail. Early in my improv career I was standing backstage with a veteran performer. Moments before we hit the stage I asked him, “Do you still get nervous before a show?” He replied, “No. Because even if we fail, the audience will laugh. And that’s the point.” Removing the fear of failure was incredibly liberating for me, particularly in the advertising world. We know we can avoid failure by mimicking our competition, repeating previous messages, and playing it safe. But isn’t that safe, boring approach a different type of failure? Give yourself permission to strive for something bigger. Push the limits. Stretch yourself. And be willing to fail.

Applying these rules to your advertising can be scary. But just like in improv, if you’ve surrounded yourself with supportive partners, they’ll be there to catch you when you fail. And then suddenly, failure isn’t really failure anymore.