Showtime! Improv Tips for Training

Think like an improviser to make your next training unforgettable.

By Tom Yorton, CEO, Second City Communications

Regardless of the role you play in developing and delivering training to your staff—from CLO to instructional designer to field trainer—the landscape is changing quickly, and your challenges are multiplying, including:

  • Ever tighter budgets and the need to create more innovative delivery of training programs
  • Millennials mixed with older staff, creating new and different expectations around learning
  • Social learning and social collaboration tools bringing new promise and questions regarding how to engage learners

In this kind of environment, it may be wise to look in a new direction for inspiration and help: the world of improvisation.

If you have ever seen an improv performance, such as the dozens we stage weekly at The Second City, you have witnessed a team of performers spontaneously creating comedic scenes from audience suggestions. Certainly, you can’t make up your training on the spot the way professional improvisers do, but you can borrow some of our methods and philosophies to inspire your creative process.

You might be surprised at what you learn about generating innovative training ideas, collaborating with your team, and engaging your audience.

Whether you are working to build upon the success of a project or are envisioning a new training program from scratch, here are ways you can think like an improviser to make your next training a real hit:

SayYes, and…”

You sit down with your team to begin planning a new sales training, but every idea is met with “We already tried that!” or “We don’t have the resources for that!”

Improvisational thinkers explore each idea, no matter how strange, to discover its merit. If you are leading an ideation session, you don’t need to love every idea, but it helps to love each idea for a moment. Consider the potential of an idea before you start to tear it apart—especially if that idea is your own. Encourage your team to say “Yes, and…” to ideas. The “Yes” means to acknowledge an idea and make sure you understand it. It doesn’t mean you agree with the idea, but rather that you are willing to have a conversation about its merit. The “and” in “Yes, and…” means you and your team are open to building upon the idea, exploring different directions and variations.

Make sure to separate the process of generating ideas (Yes, and…) from the task of editing those ideas (No, because). Many people make the mistake of moving too quickly from idea generating to idea editing. You need an abundance of training ideas in order to begin narrowing down options. Having plenty of ideas from which to choose allows the truly great ones to stand out, gives context for the options, and offers a complete picture of all the directions available. Improvisers say, “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.” You don’t need to start with a fully formed idea. With “Yes, and…” any idea can become great. Without it, great ideas might never see the light of day.

Try It: Quickly brainstorm the 10 worst training ideas for your next session. Now, while you’re still feeling playful, think of 10 great ideas for your next training. You might even find that you can repurpose one of your horrible ideas into a great idea by changing an element or two. Now look back at all of the ideas—is there a seed of a great idea in there?

Tell a Story

Even for the most astute among us, the quality of our listening diminishes over time. In designing a daylong training, we have to work against human nature to maintain the attention of participants. Improvisers have learned to keep their audiences engaged through the power of story. We don’t retain facts and figures, but we do remember a ripping good story. We can easily connect with anecdotes and case studies that tell a story, and every good speaker knows how to enliven a presentation with carefully placed tales that incorporate humor, emotion, or adventure.

Believe it or not, every training program contains a story. Uncovering the classic elements of story in your training can help you build excitement and engagement among participants. More importantly, agreeing on the story of your training can put every member of your design team on the same page.

What Changes? Any good story has a transformation: Three little pigs go from danger to safety; Romeo and Juliet go from strangers to lovers. What is the transformation your participants will have in this training? Learning a technical skill or mastering a working knowledge of sexual harassment terminology may not sound heroic, but the transformation is real, and moving from neophyte to mastery is a story worth telling. Describing training goals as a transformation can give you valuable insight into organizing the flow of a training or into winning over the approval of management.

What Is at Stake? They say every hero is measured by the hurdles she must overcome. What is at stake if participants don’t take this training? It might mean falling behind their peers, missing out on compliance deadlines, or not understanding the company’s policy on social media. There is a real risk to not participating and it must outweigh the pain of missing a regular workday. Can your participants relate (and relate to) the consequence of missing this training? Do they understand why they need to be there?

Try It: Tell the story or “pitch” of an upcoming training in 30 seconds. Is it engaging? What will transform for the participants? Is there a clear sense of transformation—can participants understand the promise of the “before” and “after” of this training? Some of the best training descriptions are so clear and concise they can be conveyed in 140 characters or less­—perfect for our online attention span.

Make It Safe to Take Risks

How would you describe a groundbreaking idea? You might use words such as “unexpected,” “untried,” or maybe even “risky.” Improvisers feel empowered to take risks in performance because they have the support of every member of the ensemble. Even the audience is willing to play along: They know failure is possible, but they love to be a part of the experimentation. They shout ideas, razz the missteps, and cheer for the sublime moments when everything comes together. They take enormous pleasure in knowing they influenced the course of the show.

With the proper context, the participants of your next beta test training can become your co-creators who give you the opportunity to test your brilliant new ideas, and forgive the not-so-brilliant ones. Their reactions and feedback will help to shape the next iteration and, in return, they provide a safe audience for the riskier learning batteries. This way, you can explore innovative training techniques and new training partnerships, as well as creative applications of social media.

How about a humorous streaming video invitation to build excitement for the training? Or opening the training with information about participants gleaned from social media to show the importance of managing a Web presence? Not every element of your test training will be a hit, but the pieces that succeed just might transform the organization. And that’s a story worth telling.

Try It: Give yourself permission to innovate by involving test learners in the process, and letting them know they are part of the creation process—and then listen impeccably to their feedback. Place riskier learning segments between more traditional sections. Don’t be afraid to take risks even in the flow of the material—an activity that drags during the post-lunch lull might fly midmorning.

Use Video to Go Viral

Anyone who’s spent any time on YouTube knows the value of short and funny videos. Consider how to build video into your training programs—to introduce new ideas, new concepts, or to highlight real-world situations or challenges. And aim for content that connects with your people, gets them talking, and has them sharing it with others. That’s how to get your training to go viral within your organization: People pass around what they love and what they connect with the most. And don’t be afraid of the funny: Humor’s often the best tool for dealing with sensitive issues or for addressing topics that are the hardest or most boring to confront.

Improvisers know the value of an abundance of ideas, of giving the audience a memorable story, and of creating an environment where taking risks can be rewarded with groundbreaking ideas. During your next planning process, think like an improviser and see what evolves.

Tom Yorton is CEO of Second City Communications, the business solutions and training division of improvisational comedy theatre The Second City. For more information, visit

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.