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Six Big Lessons Marketers Can Learn From Improvisation

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As in improvisation, all great marketing is storytelling.

Few things will stretch your comfort zone (read: scare the pants off you!) like improvisation. Improvisation is a storyteller’s weight training. There is no safety net or edit button---you are creating scenes in real time on stage based on audience suggestions. It can be downright uncomfortable, and yet, as with regular training, the results are worth it.

Here are six lessons improvisation can teach us about marketing.

1. Risk Taking

In a world of Big Data and analytics, marketing is a heck of a lot of art. Improvisation involves creative risks and following our gut (not just our heads). Great marketing, too, involves taking a few risks. There’s no way around it. When we push that comfort-zone, we learn what works. Risk is a muscle; when you exercise, it grows. To evolve, marketing must challenge the status quo. Sometimes, things won’t work. The more you take risks, the more you fail quickly and get to what works. As with improvisation, there is no way to know if something works except one: doing it. Fail fast and forward.

2. Yes, And

"Yes, and" is the cornerstone of improvisation as it is the building block for great scenes. If your on-stage partner calls you “Mom,” you are a mom in the scene. When we "deny" an offer, the scene stalls. Marketing involves "Yes, and-ing" your audience. If your audience says your brand is X, you are X. Your customer ultimately owns the brand and defines it in a way that is meaningful for them. As marketers, we shape it, we try to position it; yet our positioning is ultimately in the hands of customers. This is why great marketers---like improvisers---recognize that building great services, products, and marketing is an act of co-creation with the customer.

3. Make Your Partner Look Good

In improvisation, your goal is to make your stage partners look good by accepting their offers (choices). When you focus only on your choices, you not only deny your partner; you compromise the continuity of the story you are creating together. Great marketing is all about making your customers---not yourself---more successful. Customers don’t exist to buy your stuff. They have real human challenges, and your goal is to make them successful, happy, and delighted. Yet, how often do we read jargon-filled, company-focused ("me, my, our" vs. "you, your, their") content? Drop the focus on your methodology, your IP, your jargon, and your baggage. What matters is making your customer the hero of the story. Sometimes, you are the Robin to your customer’s Batman.

4. Stories Matter

Marketing is all about storytelling. Stories bring laughter, inspiration, memorability, and a much-needed human touch. According to Jennifer Aaker at Stanford University, research shows that stories are remembered up to 22X more than facts alone. Too many facts in improvisation (instead of reactions and emotions) render a scene robotic. What matters is the relationship that the players have with each other on stage and how they change. Marketing has to connect with our hearts, not just our heads. Most buying decisions aren’t rational anyway. Read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational or Roger Dooley’s Brainfluence. The new reality: feelings happen first, and then facts are used to justify the feeling. Pulling people into a story involves making emotional connections with them. Unleash your inner storyteller.

5. Leading vs Following

Years ago, I had a boss who delivered life lesson witticisms in his strong Southern accent, “Kathy, the sun can’t shine on the same dog’s butt all the time.” He was a character, and, it turns out, quite right. The focus can’t always be on you. In improvisation, players need to learn when to lead a scene, and when to follow someone else’s great idea to move the story forward. That’s what it means to be a team and make your partner look good. Players that over-take scenes are called “drivers” because they drive the scene into a corner. The result is never as good as if we allowed other peoples’ ideas to help shape it and make it better. When the scene naturally coalesces around someone else’s idea (read; not yours!), it’s in the best interest of the scene to rally around it instead of trying to "drive" the scene YOUR way.

The same is true of great marketing. You have to know when to let go and follow your customers’ lead. Great marketing involves putting our best ideas out there and allowing our customers to shape those stories. Letting our advocates---our enthusiast customers---drive allows us to learn what they need and how we can make THEM look good. When we try to control our brands too tightly (we really don’t have control today), we risk alienating audiences. Improvisers learn to let go for the good of the group outcome.

6. Create a Ditch-able Playbook

I have launched products, marketing campaigns, and start-up companies. In the day to day, real-time trenches, the unforeseen---both good and bad---happens. When stuff stops working, great marketers improvise and change course. Failure is part of the improviser’s motto; it’s a chance to learn and grow. Yet, continuing to fail because of inflexibility is just poor management. Improvisation isn’t just winging it. It requires preparation, mastery, and big values, such as trust.

The same is true of marketing. Marketers who prepare and are willing to improvise as needed will be the ones to succeed in a business climate of constant and rapid change. Markets are dynamic, and adaptability is critical today. Companies with solid brands are capable of improvisation precisely because they are prepared ... and open to change.

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Kathy Klotz-Guest, founder of Keeping It Human, helps companies turn marketing-speak into compelling human stories. A comic improviser and marketer, she also runs a marketing podcast. Reach her via

LinkedIn: Kathy Klotz-Guest

Twitter: @kathyklotzguest

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  • by Jen Boggs Mon Jun 17, 2013 via blog

    Good list-- and I would add two more: listen actively, and play to your highest intelligence!

  • by Kathy Klotz-Guest Mon Jun 17, 2013 via blog

    Thx Jen. Agreed. No doubt about it - listening is key! The way I view it, listening runs as a concurrent thread throughout this list. If you aren't listening, you can't make your partner look good or co-create anything that works!

  • by Beth Boynton, RN, MS Tue Jun 18, 2013 via blog

    Excellent article! VERY relevant in healthcare! We need these skills. I just went to a fantastic conference at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine for their first train the trainer in "Medical Improv"! Here's a little more info if interested.

  • by Kathy Klotz-Guest Tue Jun 18, 2013 via blog

    We all need improv! I am seeing more improvisation approaches filter into medicine and healthcare and that is awesome. Thanks for posting the article, Beth. All the best!

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