The other day I was in the midst of a three hour drive, and I don’t know why, but for some reason this drive always puts me to sleep. [It could be the fact that I try to use the time to brush up on my Spanish with audio lessons — saying phrases over and over again like — “I don’t know jewelry, but I know my wife very well.”]   This time, rather than continue to endanger the lives of fellow Pennsylvania and Maryland drivers, I stopped to shop for an audio book.  I ended up with Tina Fey’s 2011, autobiographical work, “Bossypants”.  To my delight, I ended up with a great “listen” and learned a few rules of improv that I found rather insightful.

To get you in the improv frame of mind, here’s a little video from Tina Fey and Ellen Degeneres that should help to serve as an intro point for the discussion.

The first rule of improve according to Tina Fey is:

1/ Say Yes – This simply means that you need to be open to new ideas.  I think this is a key rule for any successful business.

You have to learn how to say Yes.  It doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything, just simply to consider it.  Being open to consideration is half the battle in accepting new ideas, new ways of thinking, new methods for solving old problems…. almost anything new. Can you imagine how an improv act might go if one of the partners simply refused to go along with an idea?  You would be jumping from idea to idea with no frame of reference, no logical (or illogical) story…..  Now, translate that visual to your business or marketing team.  Someone comes up with what they believe is a great idea. You can squash it before they even get it out, or you can listen and find a thread that you can use.

Of course, the next most logical thing is to build on that idea, and that’s where the second rule of improv comes in:

 2/Say Yes and…. – That’s right, you have to add something to the mix, bring something to the party, don’t come empty handed [I love colloquialisms].  This is a tool I use all the time.  Building off of other’s ideas is a fantastic approach.  For example, you can come up with new product or service ideas simply based on the questions your customers might have; you build off of their ideas.  Or, maybe you translate an idea that didn’t work in one medium to another medium where it has a better chance of success.  “Say yes, and…” is an ideal approach to so many aspects of business.  Fostering an environment that encourages contribution is motivating, and it creates a sense of ownership among employees.  It’s the kind of environment you need in a forward thinking, marketing driven organization.

3/ Make statements – This was an interesting rule because, as a marketer, I’ve typically been directed to ask as many questions as I can to find out what people are thinking and where they are on specific issues.  This is particularly important when it comes to knowing your customers.  But the perspective Tina offered was that by asking questions all the time, we’re asking someone else to come up with the answers.  It’s like asking our customers to come up with new product ideas.  Sometimes they know, but in other instances they may not know what they will like because they haven’t experienced it yet.

Additionally, imagine if you’re bombarded with a series of questions that have a negative focus around things that might go wrong.  It’s not really moving you forward.  Those kinds of questions may help you plan, but can also be counterproductive if they get in the way of forward progress.

Declarative statements exude confidence, and in many instances that’s exactly what customers are looking to us for.  They are looking to us for answers.  Saying something with confidence lends credibility to the idea being expressed. [And, it’s best to do it in an assertive tone without a questioning tilt to your voice — particularly important for women out there who may be soft spoken or hesitant about making bold statements].   Imagine the difference between “You’re going to love these shoes!” and “I think you might like these shoes.”

And lastly, 4/There are no mistakes, only opportunities, “only beautiful, happy accidents.” as Tina calls them.  I love this one.  I wish I had this ingrained in my mind my whole life.  In improv, you can take any statement, anywhere.  Imagine doing the same thing in marketing.  If you try something and it fails, you have the opportunity of learning from that experience.  Not every program you embark on will be a resounding success.  The important thing is to learn as much as you can from every experience.

So… improv as a proxy for marketing?  Well, maybe it’s a bit too free flowing.  But improv rules co-opted for marketing?  If applied correctly, they make a lot of sense.