Carl Kissin, used with permission
Source: Carl Kissin, used with permission

I’m passionate about improv. It’s one of the most valuable skills I’ve ever learned. Improv has helped me enormously in networking, teaching, public speaking, coaching – really all aspects of my career. Summing it up in two words: Life changing, especially for me as an introvert. 

To shed light on what makes improv such an important muscle for introverts to develop, I had the privilege of interviewing Carl Kissin, a New York City-based improv master. Carl has performed more than 4,000 shows for one of the country’s longest-running sketch and improvisational comedy groups, Chicago City Limits. In the interview below, Carl shares his insights.

NA: When you think of improv, a formal improv skit or possibly jazz
musicians might come to mind. In what other arenas do you see improv taking place?

CK: Nearly every interaction we have in life is improvised – talking to a friend or co-worker, turning left or right at the corner. The only part that is not improvised is the less than one percent of the time that we have an actual script. For example, an actor performing a part or someone giving a written presentation in business. Everything else: improv!

NA: Yes, improv! What’s your favorite thing about it?

CK: In stage improv, I love being forced – if that’s not too harsh of a word – to make a decision and live with it. In life, you can stress endlessly about whether you have made the right choice. Onstage, once you have made a choice, it is instantly your reality and you make the best of it. I tell my students the only bad choice in improv is to not make a choice. 

Christian Chan/Shutterstock
Source: Christian Chan/Shutterstock

Offstage, I also love the concept of accepting someone else’s ideas and adding on to them – a core improv principle. Moving forward with choices is freeing. Saying yes is freeing. In a classroom setting, my favorite thing about improv is seeing people who apologize for themselves, saying – “I can’t think on my feet” or “I’m not funny” – improvise brilliantly. 

NA: How about those who insist they can’t tell a joke?

CK: Jokes are usually not useful in improv and I don’t think anyone needs to be able to tell one offstage in “real life” either. What’s often funnier is being truthful, being real. When two scene partners listen to each other, add on to each other’s choices, and explore the relationship of their characters, laughs of recognition emerge. Similarly, in an offstage setting, in any random interaction, it’s often best to let humor and connections emerge organically. Life is funny enough by itself; there’s no need to memorize and deliver punchlines.

NA: Whew! Then why do some people consider improvising so terrifying?

CK: They may mistakenly think of it as the domain of extroverts. Maybe they’ve seen loud, high-energy people perform. I like performers – and people – of all wavelengths. Sometimes I like high-energy, sometimes I like low-key. 

Another reason is they think they’ll have nothing to say. But Del Close, an improv luminary, said, “don’t invent, discover.” He meant you don’t have to come up with a clever idea. Just listen, add on to the concepts that are in play, and make serendipitous discoveries. 

NA: So what makes improv a useful tool for introverts?

CK: Improv teaches that listening is the most valuable skill of all, not mindless, manic talking. Listening, accepting others’ ideas, working in concert with them. Improv teaches you to trust your choices. It teaches that a measured response can be a delightful one. 

NA: Drilling down, how can improv skills help introverts in networking situations and business meetings? Keep in mind that introverts prefer thinking before speaking or acting.

CK: That’s good. One should think before speaking. Stage improv is a different subset of a larger improv universe. Networking and business meeting improv should be about listening and thinking before speaking. Now where do improv skills come in? It’s good to practice responding. It’s a muscle – learn to trust your choices and your instincts. That’s how you exercise that muscle. 

NA: On the one hand you’re saying to practice responding. And on the other, to trust your instincts. How can you reconcile the two? 

CK: They aren’t mutually exclusive. An athlete might need to improvise when a planned play doesn’t go his way, but by practicing physical skills, he or she is ready for that challenge.

NA: Drawing on your experience as an improviser, how do you recommend dealing with stage fright, whether it’s in a formal presentation environment, business meeting, or other arena? What do you suggest to overcome fear of others’ judgment?

CK: I’m a fan of owning the reality of the moment. If you are nervous, sweating, shaking even, don’t try to hide it – you likely won’t be able to. Instead, comment on your shaking. Everyone will then feel more at ease. You might even end up reducing those symptoms because you’ve lessened the tension. But I’m suggesting a brief acknowledgment; owning discomfort should not be the main course. Go back to your presentation. Make it about your audience and focusing on their needs.

NA: That’s always the best advice: making it all about your audience. One challenge for introverts, who often struggle with thinking on our feet, is the rapid-fire, back-and-forth pace of improv, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for processing at our own pace. How do you bridge the gap between the speed of improv and introverts’ tendencies to process more slowly?  

Kchung/Shutterstock
Source: Kchung/Shutterstock

CK: I don’t preach a need for speed. In an improv scene, I tell students to use their environment and physically move. That way you aren’t standing still looking dumbfounded.

In a real-life setting, you can paraphrase and affirm the last thing someone said to you. This happens when I call my telecom provider; at the end of the call they say, “Mr. Kissin, let’s review: You said you would like to pay less for our crappy service. Is that correct?” 

Silence can be dramatically compelling, both onstage and in real life. Connection between people and their thoughtfulness often trumps speed.

NA: Thank you for saying that, Carl! I hope my readers will let out a big sigh of relief along with me. 

In a prior story, “Improv for Introverts,” introvert author Beth Buelow and I touched on improv skills such as “yes and” and avoiding “blocking.” Would you briefly describe these as well as other specific improv tools to add to the introvert toolbox?

CK: I’d love to. “Yes-and” means accepting another person’s idea (the “yes” part) and adding something to it (the “and” part). Unfortunately, many of us excel in finding reasons why others' ideas won’t work. Better to “yes-and” instead. It makes people open up to brainstorming and collaboration. The antithesis shuts them down and makes them reticent to “make mistakes.” Penicillin was discovered because of a mistake. “Yes-and” doesn’t mean you have to mindlessly go along with concepts you don’t feel are workable. It just means don’t stop the positive momentum in the idea-formation stage.

NA: So you don’t have to pretend that you agree with anyone, say, in a negotiation or other business meeting. It’s more about acknowledging and building on what they say. Or saying something to the effect of, “Great point. Here’s a different perspective,” or “That brings to mind….”

CK: Yes, and “blocking” usually happens when you assert that your idea is better than the other person’s – or you reject their idea. As a result, you prevent it from happening. Don’t do that! It creates ill-will.

Reframe your “mistakes” as opportunities. Sometimes we go, “oops,” believing we have said something “wrong.” Yet, when you trust yourself and stay in the moment, rather than self-correcting and allowing your mind to race ahead, you may be surprised to find you have discovered something wonderful.

Being “ordinary” sometimes leads to extraordinary things. No one needs to make wild, wacky choices or say outrageous attention-getting statements. Saying the truth is often most compelling.

NA: Do introverts have any advantages in the realm of improv?

CK: Yes. They can be great listeners, and great listeners are great improvisers. Why? Because much of what is communicated in life is nonverbal or subtext. Aim to discern your conversation partner’s real needs – not just what they might say. Be aware of status and how people negotiate and what wants and needs they are expressing. Sometimes an improviser – or any human being – says one thing, but means another. It’s the person who can read that coded message who succeeds. 

Improv asks you to attune to all the different ways that people relate to one another. It is all about the dynamics of relationships. It’s important to be perceptive – to listen, observe, and trust your choices.  

Carl Kissin, used with permission
Source: Carl Kissin, used with permission

NA: So, to get started, take an improv class?

CK: Yes, and enjoy flexing those improv muscles, even a little each day!

NA: Thank you for getting us pumped! You’re an inspiring “yes-and” man!

Copyright 2017 © Nancy Ancowitz

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