Improv and It's Unlikely Link to Entrepreneurship

This blog was previously featured on Fantastix Production Essentials on 2 May 2019.

IMPROV; and it’s unlikely link to entrepreneurship

I was on stage during an improvisation (improv) festival and the offer was ‘start from nothing’. I stood alone on stage and looked at the 200+ people in the audience with their eyes looking up at me.

The majority of people reading this have now had a tenth of a panic attack – the concept of being on stage with NOTHING is terrifying, right? And understandably as a business owner, we need to have some sort of idea of what we are doing.

While on stage, I changed my posture and pretended to kick a ball around the stage. I kicked it a few times and then on the third kick, I missed it, acting like I was mad. The audience laughed.

This panic-inducing art form is now the kind of exercise that has become a basic Tuesday evening for me. Improvisation, if you haven’t heard of it, is play time for grown-ups. We create mutually-agreed unscripted theatre.

I found improvisation in 2012, somewhere in between Perth and moving to Canberra. I was somewhere on the Nullarbor Plain and my neighbour had kindly given me a copy of Tina Fey- Bossypants audiobook to listen to. I was listening to the book and I had flashbacks to my youth. I had always loved improv, even before I knew what it was. I knew deeply in my gut that I was meant to be doing this.

I started doing classes within a week of moving to Canberra. It felt like a like a breath of fresh air. I walked into my first class and I felt my world shift. Improv was like finding my tribe – finding people who understood me. Improv can be a bit like a cult and I willingly drank the proverbial Kool Aid. The people were open, warm and it’s almost like we figured out something no one else had – life is a playground and we can create whatever we want.

I really believe improv set the tone for me starting in business. In the subsequent three years, I would be named a Top 10 Female Entrepreneur in Australia, win countless awards and go on to start multiple six figure businesses. And all because of improv. Improv taught me skills I would initially recognise as being orientated to my work. I learned to listen, I learned to lean into not knowing what was going to happen next. It gave me confidence. I learned to trust my teammates. I learned to take the next logical step in front of me. I learned to think on my feet.

It’s amazing how these things allowed me to shed the structured and rigidity-based programming that we all get in school and exchange it for fluidity-based decision making and action taking. When you are a small little cog in a large organisation, rigid, procedure-based decision making is generally what is required of you. When you are an entrepreneur starting and running businesses, however, you are in a different world and you need to have fluidity. I have been lucky enough that Improv provided me with those skills before I’d even started my first business. I’ve met some of my best friends, my partner through improv and it set me on the path to entrepreneurship.

My Top 3 Lessons of Improv 

Start from a yes

It’s my favourite idea about improv – you have to start from a place of YES. If you and I are onstage and I am performing what I clearly think is me baking a cake, and you walk on and say “I like that you’re doing the ironing for a change!” I’m not going to argue with you. Great, I’m ironing… and I’m just about to burn your favourite shirt! See? Now we have started a scene.  You have to start with a “yes” and figure out the details on the way. You listen, you react, you are in it together. I have always found it jarring when people start from a place of no. It’s good in business and also just good for life.

You are not alone

I’ve only found myself on stage completely alone a handful of times. One of these times, I stood on stage and was asked to do a 5 minute monologue about flowers which, to my absolute surprise, I nailed.

In direct contrast, I was once asked to do something similar – to sing a song on a specific topic. To say I flopped would be a massive understatement.

The foundational thought is that you are all in this together. It’s never an ‘us vs them’, improv is collaborative. Midway through the song train wreck, another performer rushed the stage and we performed a duet, to audience applause and laughter.  Someone came to help when I needed it and saved me from a tumbling house. It’s something I’ve noticed in business too. As soon as I start to flop or have issues in my business, people have come to my rescue. Surround yourself with the people who will come to your rescue when you are faltering. Return the favour as required.

 Failure will not kill you

One of my favourite games with improv teaches you to celebrate failure. The crew stands in a circle and throws an imaginary ball to each other. When the person receiving the ball intentionally drops it in a dramatic fashion, the rest of the crew immediately celebrates with rounds of applause and cheers.  It is the first time in my entire life when I made a mistake and I was celebrated.

With improv I’ve performed some amazing shows with some of the most incredible performers in the world. I’ve also been in a performance where there are less people in the audience than on the stage.

I’ve bombed so hard with a punchline of a joke that no one laughed and then I watched someone leave the venue. Yes, it stung. It would be nice to always be on stage and be happy and killing it, but that’s just simply not life. But the one thing was consistent. I have failed on stage and here is the thing: I survived.

I went home and life went on, but most importantly, I learned and became better because of it. I learned from my mistakes and realised mistakes were made and it was actually going to be fine.

Now during speaking gigs, client meetings and business events, the small hiccups, the stumbles on stage, and forgetting your place in your keynote speech are made a thousand times easier to deal with.

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mprovisation – great for on-stage AND great for off-stage!

You may have noticed from our Facebook Page that Paul does a lot of networking. As the Group Leader of BxNetworking Sutherland, he meets many wonderful and dedicated small business owners. Jemimah Ashleigh is one such individual.

Jemimah Ashleigh is one of Australia’s leading entrepreneurs. Having built three successful businesses from scratch, she is a highly sought-after business consultant, mentor, speaker and bestselling author of her book Position Me.  Jemimah also hosted the #2 business podcast in Australia. 

Jemimah now works exclusively with businesses to help position them as the ‘go-to’ expert in their field.

Using their expertise, Jemimah focuses on branding, focusing on mindset, market positioning, digital marketing to build profiles. This winning combinations set business owners up to excel in their businesses in less time and with greater efficiency.

She has been named one of Australia’s Top 10 Female Entrepreneurs and Woman to Watch in 2019. In other words, she’s pretty awesome and we are grateful to have her guest blogging with us