Fun fact about me: I actually have a little bit of background in improvisational comedy. There was even a time when I was part of a group that would perform improv in bars in the Iowa City area for little more than free beer. In looking back, I often think the establishment got the raw end of that deal. 

Many of my friends continued on to Chicago to careers on-stage at Second City, ImprovOlympic, and beyond. For a time I thought that would be my path as well. Though I eventually ended up in the world of marketing I am continually surprised at how this background in improvisation proved incredibly useful rather than the false start I once thought it was.

One such application for improvisation skills in business today is in social media or community management. While Gary Vaynerchuk touches on this ever so briefly in The Thank You Economy, the metaphor actually applies more than he lets on. It fits because, like improvisers, community managers need to …

  • Think on their feet — Like the improvisers taking an audience suggestion, community managers have a variety of situations thrust on them throughout the course of any given day. Both need rapid-fire creativity.
  • Respond in a limited window of time — A second can seem like an eternity on stage when you are listening, responding, and thinking of what should happen next in your improv scene. In a world where tweets fly by at a breakneck pace, each moment a brand doesn’t respond to a suggestion from their audience seems like an eternity as well. In both cases, everyone’s watching.
  • Listen more than talk — A drastically different discipline than stand-up comedy, improvisers are taught to carefully build a scene together brick by brick through listening to the suggestions of the other players and adding on. Community managers also need to remember, as Chris Brogan says when contrasting community vs. audience, which way the chairs face (an audience looks at the speaker; a community looks at each other). In short — listen up and build on what your community brings to the table.
  • Take on a character — Paul Sills, co-founder of the Compass Players and Second City, often said that you should “Wear your character like a straw boater.” Community managers need to be able to put on the “character of the brand” with similar ease. The brand should have a clear voice and guidelines for what your character would say and do in social media and what it wouldn’t. This is especially critical if your community management is shared among a team.
  • Be a part of something bigger — Self-starters are great but when your social media department or staff member is an island in your organization, you have a problem. Maybe not today or tomorrow but soon. Like a scene built together on stage, social is best when it’s part of the overall marketing, PR, and communications team.

So, your community managers should all be comedians? Of course not — though a sense of humor always helps. Rather, you need to foster an environment that supports creativity and improvisation and look for “players” that can bring even more of this to your team. More than just being a fun, collaborative work environment, you’ll quickly find this enhances your audience engagement as well. Remember, you never know what suggestion will be drawn out of the hat next …

If you’re thinking of a fun team building exercise, both Second City and iO (formerly ImprovOlympic) offer corporate training programs. If you want to read probably the best book on improv (with some lessons you can apply in the world of work) pick up a copy of Truth in Comedy by Del Close, Charna Halpern, and Kim Johnson.

Remember to tip your wait staff.

Photo via Flickr user Mulling it Over