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Improv for the Unexpected in Meetings

Since I’m a guest blogger, I can say without sounding like a braggart that Meeteor is an exquisite tool for planning a meeting. However, danger may lurk in having such an excellent planning resource: You could easily develop an excessive attachment to the plan itself rather than what serves the people in the room and the big picture.

As a partner at On Your Feet, a consultancy that has been using improvisational (improv) theater practices to help businesses for nearly 20 years, we are all about creating a robust plan, and then showing up ready to see what really happens. Yes, it's improv for meetings.

What is Improv? How Does it Relate to Meetings?

Improv is a theater form in which actors take the stage without a script or a director to create a story together live, in the moment. Because improvisers work in a state of massive uncertainty, they have certain agreed-upon norms for collaborating to help them bring stories to life. These very loose communication structures allow for maximum creative freedom on the stage and the ability to deal with whatever the audience, the space, or the other performers may do.

When you step into a meeting, you are probably also stepping into a place of uncertainty, whether or not your team is using Meeteor, because, well, you’re meeting with real human beings. They do things you don’t expect. Maybe even things you don’t like.

We’d like to introduce you to some ideas from the world of improv to help keep your head from exploding when something wildly or mildly unexpected happens in your meeting or presentation.

Improv Practice #1: See Everything as an Offer.

In improv theater, anything that happens on the stage is an offer, something you can take and use. For example, imagine that you are in an improv scene. Your scene partner is stepping onto the stage, and suddenly, she trips. Now you have something to work with—an offer! “Kiki, I’ve asked you to stop going to the bar before you come home from work,” you may say, and your scene is off and running.

Notice what you did not do when your scene partner tripped onto the stage: You did not spend time or energy judging her. You did not panic. You did not give up on the scene or on her.

You stayed committed and present, trying to move the scene forward.

You can make the same choices in your meetings. You can treat everything as an offer, something you can take and use to move your common “story” forward.

Let’s imagine you’re having a meeting with a single desired outcome. You want to walk out with “Agreement on three fleshed-out ideas for videos to introduce our business to new customers.”

Twenty minutes into this hour-long meeting, with no ideas even close to fleshed out, someone in the room (let’s call him Kiran) says that the conversation is giving him some great ideas for the company blog, and he starts listing them, trying to get the room’s opinion.

There are two ways you can respond to this (or any) offer: You can block it, or accept it. When you block an offer, you are stopping the flow between yourself and the other person. When you accept offers, you keep flow going.

What Blocking Offers Looks Like

In a meeting, it’s pretty easy to judge an unexpected offer as being “off-topic” or “disruptive” or worse. You might think to yourself, “Kiran should know better than to bring up the blog in a meeting about the video!” So you could block Kiran by saying,

“This isn’t a meeting about the blog.”

A more indirect (and common) way to block Kiran is to ignore his ideas and just keep talking about the video. But blocking Kiran has a cost: He may feel shut out of the conversation and tune out. Alternately, others may be distracted by your choice to shut him down. (Just because you block an offer doesn’t mean it’s not still there!)

What Accepting Offers Looks Like

Remember back to what you did when your scene partner tripped onto the stage: You stayed engaged. You used the offer she made, not knowing or caring if she was trying to “disrupt” the scene. You kept working with her to move the action forward. Another way to say this is that you chose to accept her offer. You acknowledged it, and you did something with it. (Many people in the improv world use shorthand for this idea: “Yes, and.”)

You can make that same choice in a meeting when something comes along that doesn’t appear to support the Plan.

Here’s one way you could accept Kiran’s offer:

“Kiran, I see this conversation is giving you great ideas for the blog. Are you seeing any we could adapt for our videos?”

This “yes, and,” acknowledges Kiran’s blog ideas and brings him back into the larger conversation about your desired outcome.

As a facilitator, though, you can’t always say “yes” to an idea. If Kiran has the full conversation he wants to have about his exciting blog ideas, the group probably won’t achieve its agreed-upon desired outcome for this meeting.

You can, however, accept Kiran’s offer, maintaining flow with him, without saying “yes” to a group conversation about the blog:

“It’s exciting that this conversation about the video is giving you so many ideas for the blog. Can I put that discussion on the backburner/ parking lot of ideas that we’ll follow up on later?”

You’ve acknowledged Kiran and his offer of exciting blog ideas, and you’ve done something with it (put it on the backburner), so there is flow between you. However, you have not said yes to his idea to shift the meeting to a conversation about the blog. Flow achieved. And now you’ve shifted the meeting’s focus back to your desired outcome.

Improv Practice #2: Let Go of Your Agenda

There is one more idea in improv that you as a leader or facilitator have the power to harness in a meeting when the unexpected occurs: letting go of your agenda.

Remember in our improv example when your scene partner tripped onto the stage? Unbeknownst to you, she was imagining her character as the World’s Biggest Klutz on a blind date to meet you, the Most Graceful Person in the World. But the moment you said, “Kiki, I’ve asked you to stop going to the bar before you come home from work,” she had to let go of her agenda and start co-creating the story you were both in. Had she not, the audience would have perceived nothing but a tedious agenda-fest as you battled over what scene you were playing.

As a facilitator, you too can choose to let go of your agenda if it serves your greater collective goals. This is what that might look like in our imaginary meeting with Kiran and the videos:

“Kiran, your enthusiasm around these blog ideas and Sue’s consumer insights about our target customers’ online behaviors are making me wonder if we committed to video as a solution too soon. Let’s take the next fifteen minutes to re-examine the best way to attract new customers. Then, we’ll walk out of here with one strong idea for a piece of content to develop.”

It may feel strange to accept the fairly radical offer that you’re in the midst of facilitating the wrong meeting, but doing so (with the utmost transparency) when it serves the big picture can be a master facilitation move of the highest order!

Improv for Meetings: Final Thoughts

To keep your meetings from being aimless messes of time or GAME OF THRONES-scale battles for control, of course you need to come prepared with a well-formulated plan. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the plan is only there to serve the larger goals of your business.

To know when to hold fast to the meeting you intended to have, and when to loosen your grip—all while making sure that people feel heard and respected— we’ve found it’s helpful to behave like an improviser and ask yourself, without judgment, “What’s the offer here, and how can I accept it?” Then, if necessary, be prepared to let go of your agenda.

We hope you’ll try these ideas from the world of improv at your next meeting and let us know how they went.


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