What does improv mean to you? Until earlier this year, I thought “improv” meant being funny on stage with no script in front of a bunch of strangers.

Earlier this year, I was gifted a book by a former coworker, whom I’d gotten to know from the many training courses she’d put together for us. I’d been telling her about my fascination with how people operate and communicate, and she thought I’d enjoy this read.

The author is a former actor who now studies how to make scientists better at communicating with non-scientists. His tool? Improv.

And this is how I learned about all the things you do to prepare for being funny on stage with no script in front of a bunch of strangers. It’s not about being funny. It’s not about being on stage. It’s not about performing for strangers.

It’s about being able to read someone’s intentions, being able to empathize, being able to build on what they’re trying to do, and being clear in conveying what you’re trying to do.

It’s about communication.

How does one learn to do all these things? By playing games. Improv games. Improv games with no stage in sight.

This sounded fun, so I researched some classes and signed up for a 3 hour intro workshop.

I walked into the workshop expecting to spend a few hours playing improv games. In the first exercise, we were tasked with sharing with our partner what we hoped to get out of the class.

I hadn’t considered this. I’d signed up thinking it’d be interesting, probably fun, and a good way to improve my empathy and communication over time.

“I hope by the end of this class, I’ll be able to speak without the filter I run everything through during the day.” It sounded like a lofty goal. How does one break a lifelong habit / skill so crucial to our ability to function in society?

From there we were off. We introduced ourselves with gestures, made up secret handshakes, counted with actions, morphed into nouns and verbs and adjectives. We passed imaginary objects, gifted imaginary objects to one another, interacted as imaginary objects. We planned weekend getaways to Antarctica and constructed profoundly deep words of wisdom.

We played a lot of games, laughing the entire time. Toward the end, we played a game called 3-Headed Expert, in which a team of three people function as one, answering questions one word at a time, one person at a time.

It’s a thing of beauty when you focus and flow as a team. When you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going, but you all manage to push in the same direction. When you drop your filter and devote yourself entirely to speaking as one with your fellow Expert Heads.

We were hilarious. If only you could have seen us on stage. :)

Filterless flow in 3 hours. I suspect there will be more improv in my future.

Our intro games, for posterity:


  1. Sounds dangerously close to team building. *eyes class suspiciously*

    I had seen this one somewhere at some point in the recent past and your post reminded me. Alan Alda (from MASH among other things) is using the improv skill thing to teach scientists to communicate their specialties and skills to non-scientists and other types of scientists. Seems to work for them.

    • I’ll admit, I’m exploring bringing this in for my work teams.

      Alan Alda! That’s the guy who wrote the book I was talking about!

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