For Meetings with a Clear Outcome, Try These 4 Improv Rules

All meetings are much like performance shows where people come in and take their usual roles. There’s always someone who monopolizes the conversation and couldn’t care less about your agenda, the typical colleague who never speaks up, or the one who would literally agree to anything you say, right? That’s because each team gathers a wide variety of personalities and communication styles. So how can you encourage all attendees to engage in the conversation and contribute within a given time frame, so that when the meeting is over you have a clear outcome?

Photo by Angel Origgi on Unsplash

Forcing a particular communication style on team members is not recommended. Actually, it’s not even effective, because it usually leads to frustration and people tend to refrain themselves from speaking up and collaborating. Most articles advise on running discussions solely within the boundaries of a meeting agenda and a preset time frame. Collaborative cultures on the other hand stress the importance of equal participation. They measure productivity by the number of actionable results that should be visible by the end of the meeting. Everybody’s right, at least in theory. In reality, the imperative of the meeting agenda hinders creativity; the pressure of producing palpable  results within a specific time frame often makes equal participation kind of impossible.
But let’s go back to visualizing meetings as performances and see how theater techniques can help you run a participatory discussion. I’m bringing up theater, because I’ve recently come across Tina Fey’s improvisation rules, and I think they can be successfully applied to any meeting and collaborative process. Improv techniques are proven to spur collaboration (I’ll explain how), but they do not guarantee that at the end of the meeting you will have made a decision or found a solution. For this purpose, I’d like you to consider the language of outcomes, a concept coined by Ann Latham, that I will also detail in this article.

Turn your meetings into improv sessions

In 2011, comedian Tina Fey published her autobiographical book Bossypants. Among many interesting aspects, Fey also addressed her comedian experience, pointing out four improv rules that nourish collaboration and teamwork. Never mind that these rules come from an unpredictable and completely unscripted field like improv. After all, meetings too are more often than not unpredictable, in spite of your well set time frame and agenda.
According to Bob Kulhan, CEO of Business Improvisations in Chicago/New York/Los Angeles, “improv teaches people how to react, adapt and communicate honestly with each other. The focus, concentration and honesty required in improv readily apply to the communication skills required in business.”
Let’s see what these improv rules are all about and how you can integrate them into your next meeting so that all participants bring more ideas to the table.

Rule #1: Always agree and say YES

This seems to be a golden rule in improv. I know it sounds scary, considering how often people tend to digress from meeting goals. However, “YES” doesn’t necessarily imply that you agree with everything that you hear or that you give people everything they want. Basically, you are required to accept all suggestions and put things into perspective, without questioning their likelihood and jumping to conclusions. This means you’re actively listening. In reaction to your acceptance, people will feel encouraged to pitch ideas that you can play with, that might lead you to something better.
It’s very easy to say “NO” and come up with arguments why this or that is not a good idea. But this will only crush people’s morale and engagement. Criticism and cynicism will make them feel reluctant to contribute. And that’s how you might let great ideas get away.

Rule #2: Say “yes AND”

This is when, not only you agree, but you also contribute.
While “YES” boosts self-confidence and encourages teammates to speak up, “yes AND” takes the conversation one step further. You start by agreeing, then you bring something to the table as well. It’s about being generous, it’s about using what the other person has said as a foundation and building on it. This approach works great in brainstorming sessions, problem solving and conflict resolution.

Using “yes AND” for an engine in your meetings will motivate teammates to pitch even more ideas. Refrain from appraising them on the spot, use them to create something new altogether.

Rule #3: Make statements

In other words, ask fewer questions and make more statements. When you’re asking questions, people feel pressured to come up with something, anything. Their focus shifts from quality to quantity.
If your statements outnumber the questions you ask, people will have a sense of direction. Your statements will instill a certain degree of trust. People will follow your lead, helping you build on it.

Rule #4: Look only for opportunities

Once you’ve turned the first three rules into a habit, you will deal with an indefinite range of possibilities. Trying new things might not always lead to good outcomes, yet it paves the way for innovation.
So, meetings should not be about finding fault and assigning guilt. Because fear of error prevents people from taking chances. Yet, we only fail when we have not learned anything from mistakes, ours and those of others.

Why speak the language of outcomes

Fey’s improv rules will help you turn meetings into creative sessions, where people feel comfortable sharing ideas and offering input. However, meetings should end with a palpable outcome. Applying improv rules to your meetings will help you gather a large array of ideas and possibilities that you can unceasingly discuss and review. But will they help you make a decision, or come up with a plan or a solution?

Focus on destination verbs

In her book, Clear Thoughts: Pragmatic Gems of Better Business Thinking, Ann Latham dismisses verbs such as discuss, communicate, report, review, respond, and write. She calls them “treadmill verbs” because, in spite of taking you far, they lead to no definite result. In the end, they bring no clear, real value.
Instead of using treadmill verbs, Latham suggests that people should focus on the following destination verbs, which in her opinion add up real progress:

  1. make a decision
  2. draw a plan
  3. reach a resolution for a problem
  4. make up a list needed as input to any of the above
  5. receive confirmation
  6. obtain authorization

As much as I like Tina Fey’s improv rules, because I do find them valid and collaborative, I have to agree with Latham’s perspective too. If you start a meeting with a goal in mind and you run the entire discussion solely on these four improv rules, it’s very unlikely that you’ll reach any of the destinations above.
And this is when you can work with the two approaches, particularly if you’re the one running the meeting. While “agreeing and saying YES,” you will encourage people to participate. You can use the “yes AND” method to reinstate the goals of the meeting and/or to underline how people’s input relates to the destination. You can use the “make statements” rule to reinforce goals and to bring clarity.

Measure progress more easily

Reviewing, discussing, reporting, and communicating generally does not indicate progress. That’s why, Latham recommends using destination verbs as often as possible. Because they make it easier to track evolution. If at the end of the meeting you have made a decision, come up with a plan or a list, or found a solution to a problem, you can consider it a success; the goal of the meeting was clearly met.
You may not always reach one of the 6 destinations above, but if at least you have obtained input for any of them, you can still call it progress. If you’re not sure about the input needed for these destinations, it means you’re working with unclear processes. Consequently, as engaged and collaborative as your teammates might be, your meeting will inevitably fail. It’s not their fault. It’s because your processes are not straightforward. That is actually why you’re continuously reviewing, reporting, and communicating, pacing up and down “the treadmill.”
In short, effective meetings run on clarity and collaboration. Improv techniques boost spontaneity, synergy, and ingenuity; the language of outcomes helps you create and maintain clarity of goals and processes.
What do your meetings look like? Did you try any of the above-mentioned improv techniques, or are you willing to give them a try? You’re welcome to share your experience in the comments below.

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