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Improvisation...It's All About Practice

When things go wrong, improvise. But only after you practice.

On the football field and on the stage, things go wrong. A missed pass, an interception, a fumbled kick… expected foibles in a game. A forgotten line, “costume malfunction,” or rainfall in an outdoor theater…expected problems in a performance. Yet, as fans and audience members know, The Show Must Go On and sometimes the players and actors and dancers just…improvise. So how do players and actors do it?

The Show MUST go on

When a theater director and actors rehearse, often 6-7 hours per day, six days a week, they review and experiment with how the actors will speak, inflect, and move in specific scenes. The actors repeat the scenes with one another, in front of the director, and in a whole group, sometimes hundreds of times. The week before the play opens is “tech week,” a beta test of the entire production, to make sure everything works perfectly. Actors wear costumes and use the props, the lighting and sound/music enters, and scene shifts happen just as they will during the run of the play.

Similarly, football players practice specific plays many times. The intent is the same: to executive a scene in a play or a play on a field without mistakes.

oops! now what?

But when things go wrong, the deliberate and concentrated repetitions and practice pays off. That’s when actors and players adjust and improvise, and, if the coaches and directors have done their jobs, remain unfazed and poised.

The level of professionalism and quality of practice to execute a perfect play or scene, on the field or stage, astounded Jim Giuffré when he first heard coaches and actors talking about it. Chief Operating Officer at Healthwise, a health information provider that works with groups like WebMD, Giuffre began wondering how “practice to improvise” might apply in a business organization. Yet so many organizations, especially ones like his that depend upon a knowledge base, have activities and tasks that are non-repetitive and would seem to be poor candidates for “practice.”

But the Healthwise executive looked harder to find areas that could use more “practice.” An obvious one was client meetings. Too often, employees go to a client meeting with a prepared presentation or plan of discussion. But then, something goes wrong: the client reduces the amount of time available, he changes topics midway through the presentation, or she dominates the discussion with questions and nixes the idea of a presentation altogether. If Healthwise

Jim Giuffre, Healthwise

salespeople are unable to “improvise” when the meeting direction shifts, it could mean loss of a potential sale or renewal. So Giuffré applied what he had heard from actors and coaches to find ways for salespeople to “practice” enough that they got beyond the fundamentals, could adjust and improvise. They know now that a presentation (or “performance”) can’t be the same each time. And, they are practice enough so they can improvise whenever they need to.

Copyright © Nancy K. Napier

Healthwise is a member of The Gang, a group of diverse high performing, highly creative organizations. To listen to a podcast about The Gang, please visit Boise State University's Beyond the Blue podcast series:

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