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The Art Of Improvisation And Business Communication

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Bob Kulhan, Business Improv
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With Bob Kulhan, President, CEO, and Founder of Business Improv, Author, Adjunct Professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School

Bob Kulhan And The Evolution Of Business Improv

Bob Kulhan, author, actor, and CEO of Business Improv, as well as adjunct professor at Duke and Columbia business schools, joins Steve to talk about what business people can learn from practicing techniques borrowed from the world of improvisation. Bob has worked with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and has taught for many years at Second City, Chicago’s legendary comedy club and talent incubator. While he’s gone on to help countless businesses improve their communication cultures via corporate training programs staged by Business Improv, his insights and practices could arguably be used by just about anyone, whether to become more productive in business or for relationships overall.

Improv Becomes Experiential Learning

Bob’s experience with improvisation dates back over two decades when, much to his parents’ chagrin, he abandoned an up-and-coming small business to dedicate four years to studying improv. After finishing that study in the mid-90s, in a development he describes as “pretty much by coincidence,” he forged the idea of running corporate training workshops based on improvisation concepts. The initial results were mixed; many clients had a hard time seeing any lasting value beyond a few diverting hours of fun.  It wasn’t until he landed a gig creating experiential learning programs at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business that his ideas really started to take flight. The Fuqua School brought further conceptual weight to Kulhan’s experiential improv practices, folding in academic work from fields of study like behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology, organizational theory, and behavioral decision making.

Rules Of Improv And Corporate Training

As a musician himself, Steve observes that most art forms are based on rules and discipline and asks Bob to talk the rules of improvisation as they relate to business and helping people and teams get better at what they do. Bob states that the core concept of improvisation is something he calls “Yes, And.”  This short phrase could be contrasted against “Yes, But” and the sense starts to come into focus: The former opens a path for continued dialog and exchange, while the latter tends to foreclose certain possibilities.  As Bob eloquently states it: “‘Yes’ is unconditional acceptance; you give me this gift, this offer, this opportunity. ‘And’, then, is the bridge to what you do with it, your intelligence, your energy, your attitude.” This is the fundamental rule in improvisation because it opens many doors, including one Bob labels “postponed judgment,” which also has resonance in a business context. Other qualities that “Yes, And” hones and brings to the forefront include slowing down and being focused in the moment, qualities that promote leadership and emotional intelligence.  Communication is encouraged and enhanced by “Yes, And” both on an individual basis and a collaborative team level. It also offers value as a conflict management practice. All of these refinements to communication scenarios and norms that the art of improvisation offers can bring enormous business value.

Steve wonders how much good improvisation depends upon relevant experience that can be drawn from. To use the music analogy again, it appears that even improvised playing is dependent on the ability to call upon a kind of stock or vocabulary of memorized riffs and phrasings. Bob agrees that becoming truly good at improvisation requires years of study and practice. He’s sanguine about the possibilities, however, suggesting that verbal improv affords participants the chance to organically explore “infinite potentials.”  As far as corporate training programs are concerned, although time is usually very limited—rather pathetically compared to the years of practice that Bob considers necessary to scale the heights that improvisation can reach—the important thing is to first establish a common understanding of why everyone is there. This will typically encompass the particular challenges that an organization faces and a description of how improvisation can work as a medium to bring certain relevant messages into play.  Another ground rule that must be established in these short training sessions is the idea of postponing judgement—of others, of oneself, of the exercises. A more critical review can be done after the improvisation is over.

Why Listening Is Not As Easy As It Sounds

On the subject of listening, so integral to the improvisation process, Steve remarks that many people find it difficult because they’re up in their own heads trying to formulate what they’re going to say in response while the other party is still talking.  Bob calls this a “basic human communication pitfall” that comes at a potentially high cost. Being caught up in what you’re going to say next takes you out of the present moment and leaves you unfocused and unable to simply react to whatever it is someone is telling us.  Bob recommends returning to the “Yes, And” strategy, which he describes as a communication tool that can be used to slow down your mind and allow it to focus and be present. Furthermore, when “Yes” is reflected from listener back to speaker, it is received by the speaker as validating the fact that they are being heard.

How To Be Engaging

Stage-fright is a widespread and sometimes crippling experience that afflicts a lot of people.  Steve asks Bob whether and, if so, how he addresses this in his training sessions.  Bob’s response is that Business Improv’s programs are designed to minimize this experience, to make people feel like there is no spotlight shining on anyone, that they’re all going through the same exercises together and that there’s “safety in numbers”. He then addresses a related issue: training programs specifically designed to help people improve their presentation skills and handle all kinds of situations from technical glitches to audience questions.  Bob refers to a mentor he had at Second City who taught him that “to be interested is to be interesting,” a rule Business Improv has adopted and rephrased to “to be engaged is to be engaging.”  He recommends treating your thoughts like they should be externalized, not dwelt on in a way that reinforces a negative feedback loop of nervousness and self-consciousness.  By pushing thoughts outward towards your audience, they feel engaged and perceive you as engaging, even if you haven’t brought that much content to the table yet.

Improv and Your Personal Brand

The last stop in Steve and Bob’s conversation is about how improvisation techniques can be put to use to polish your personal brand. From Bob’s point of view, attitude and energy are personal choices. As he puts it: “It’s a choice to be low energy; it’s a choice to have a bad attitude; it’s a choice to be high energy, and it’s a choice to have a good attitude.” He believes it’s very valuable to take a few minutes before an important meeting or phone call to check in with yourself and appraise your energy and attitude.  Am I physically and emotionally in a place to perform at an elite level?  Making this a habit will improve your readiness and presentation skills over time.


Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

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Steve Pomeranz: Bob Kulhan is an actor and former faculty member in Chicago’s famed Second City. His company, Business Improv, creates corporate training programs, which use the direct connections between improvisation and business. Bob has worked with the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and his techniques are something that we can all use, whether it’s for business or just to interact more productively with the people around us. Bob Kulhan, welcome to the show. So happy to have you.

Bob Kulhan: Steve, thank you very much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Steve Pomeranz: So you’re steeped in the background of improv and have worked with so many people in that industry and learned a lot of the techniques. How did it occur to you that these techniques could be valuable in the business world?

Bob Kulhan: I have an undergrad in business, and I was quite successful in business before my mid-20s, 24, 25. I left business to get into improvisation and do the best I can never to enter business again, only to find out that in the mid-’90s, a professional improviser was a contradiction in terms.

I started doing a lot of corporate training for a lot of other great houses in Chicago, and it was, at that time, in the late ’90s, very vacuous, empty. People were taking the programs and saying, “It was fun; I just can’t use any of this stuff. And now I have to actually go back to work and make up for the three, four, or five hours I spent here.” So, it was kind of a fun waste of time.

I knew that there was more substance between two things that I really loved, business and, of course, improvisation. I had a very serendipitous turn of events take place in which the Duke Fuqua School of Business was looking for some experiential learning, and I was in the right place at the right time to start collaborating on some experiential learning, and then we were off and running.

So, I could create depth and substance to the experiential learning that improvisation inherently provides through, of course, great business schools and great businesses, and also through behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology and organizational theory and behavioral decision making.

Steve Pomeranz: Well, your parents must have loved to hear that conversation with them when you said, “You know, I’m not going into business. We’ve just spent thousands and thousands of dollars for me to get my degree, I’m going into improv.” What was that conversation like?

Bob Kulhan: Challenging, especially because by 24 years old, I had already won a couple of Bank of America awards for small business creative marketing in Chicago Regional.

Steve Pomeranz: You were on your way, Man.

Bob Kulhan: I was on my way. I told them that I’m leaving to go to study improv with all my heart and passion and energy. They were firmly against it, and what I asked for was about a four-year grace period. It took me four and a half years to get through college, and I wanted just about the same amount to see what I could do with improvisation. And then, pretty much by coincidence, at the end of that four, four and a half years, that’s when I started marrying improvisation to business and moving forward. So, I negotiated with them.

Steve Pomeranz: What was it like to work at Second City? What years did that take place?

Bob Kulhan: I started teaching for the Second City around ’99, I believe. It might have even been ’98, so just for the sake of trying to be generous with accuracy, I’ll say ’99. And really continued to work with them, in one capacity or another, through 2013 or so. As I was auditing audition sessions they would put together in New York, for people who had talent to go on their cruise ships, I toured with them on their cruise ships. In fact, that’s where I met my wife. She was a dancer on one of the cruise ships and I was a Second City improv and sketch comedian.

And I taught for them for the better part of a decade, and was, of course, their first core faculty, me and two other people. You’re talking about one of the greatest American institutions. And really, when it comes to the art of improvisation, it’s the greatest institution in the entire world, at least in my eyes. There are several others that can compete with it; they’re just the mothership of it. You can kind of say they were the first in doing this, with sketch comedy and satire starting in 1959. There’s no other place like it, and for that record like Chicago, when it links to improvisation, in the entire world. Chicago …

Steve Pomeranz: You mentioned the word art. But, you know, art requires discipline, it’s often rules-based. I’m a musician, I understand that. I think even a visual artist understands that there are rules of perspective and other. What are some of the rules of improvisation that translate into business to make people more successful?

Bob Kulhan: The core to sort of all improvisation is a two-word phrase called “Yes And”. “Yes” is unconditional acceptance; you give me this gift, this offer, this opportunity. “And,” then, is the bridge to what you do with it—your intelligence, your energy, your attitude.

This is the fundamental rule of improvisation because it leads to so many different things, like postponing judgment, which is also important in business. Slowing down, being focused and present in the moment, very important to business, especially as it relates to leadership and presence and mindfulness and emotional intelligence. The ability to create on an individual basis and create inside of an ensemble or a team, so you’re talking about collaboration, communication. Improvisation is a communication-based art form inherently, so it leads directly to communication. And as you link “Yes And” to communication, it’s also a conflict management technique. So, really, the rules of improvisation as an art, apply directly to business in so many ways.

Steve Pomeranz: I’m trying to visualize this on stage. If a fellow improv member will throw you an idea, and you, basically, have to be in the moment, and you’re saying, “Yes,” you may not actually say it, but you’re thinking, “Okay, yes.” And now you have to take that idea, and you have to move it along in your own unique way. Is that the process you’re describing?

Bob Kulhan: Absolutely. You don’t always have to say “Yes And” to mean “Yes And,” and “Yes And” does not always mean yes, I agree with you 100%, and I’m always going to do what you say. It’s a way for us to come together to find common ground and build off of each other and be inspired by each other. And that takes an incredible amount of focus and concentration and listening, to be present in the moment, observation skills, to really link up with one or more other individuals to collaborate in real time and organically discover the next things that you’re going to do and say, in the context of a show.

Steve Pomeranz: Thinking about improvisation, I’m a musician and I understand the art of jazz improvisation. Many people think that it’s all created on the spot, and every note is, or every phrase is original, but there’s a mental catalog that a jazz player will have of ideas that they’ve played or other people’s ideas that they may input into their solo. And there’s only, really—I don’t know what the percentage would be—but there’s only a smaller percentage that’s actually created at that moment. When you’re handed something as an improviser or in business, an idea, how much of that is trained knowledge that you’ve already had and that you’re going to be vamping on, and how much of it is true improvisation?

Bob Kulhan: All great improvisation is based in training and knowledge and repetition, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, regardless of which direction you’re going to take it. We don’t have the confines necessarily that music or jazz puts into place, with so many measures or bars or only X number of notes. We have a much more limitless possibility. That allows us to organically explore and heighten and discover really to infinite potentials.

That said, if you do not have a strong foundation, a clear understanding of what’s going on, a common language we could use, a shared set of beliefs, a common goal, and years and years, hours and hours and hours, endless hours, of practice, you are not going to be able to improvise and perform at the top of your intelligence in any art, at the same level that somebody else can, who is putting in that time, energy, effort.

Steve Pomeranz: When you go into a workshop in a corporation, you’ve got X hours to work with these people. Maybe it’s a full week, I really don’t know how it works. How do you get them to be able to come up with something and to change their behaviors, in such a short period of time? What are some of your techniques?

Bob Kulhan: Our programs in business improv range anywhere from a 30, 60, 90-minute keynote type of presentation, to multiple days. They’re all custom created. In an average program, which lasts around four hours, the first thing that we all really have to do is create a common understanding of why we’re there. And that includes looking at improvisation as a medium for delivering these types of messages and the challenges they face inside their organization because a creativity program for one organization is not going to be a great fit for a creativity program in another organization. And my four examples will be a creative organization, like Pepsi-Cola creative or a pharmaceutical company. They’re not going to deal with it the same. So, it’s really understanding where they are, what they want to do, their goals, and then showing the delivery on how to get there.

And then, ultimately, we ask them to postpone judgment. Postpone judgment of the exercises, of each other, of themselves, of exactly what we’re going to do, until the tail end of the program, when we can put our critical thinking hats back on and say, “This is what’s happening at this point.”

My three and a-half-year-old son just walked in.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I heard. That’s fine.

Bob Kulhan: Hey Casey.

Steve Pomeranz: We’re going to be improvising from this moment forward.

Casey Kulhan: Yeah.

Bob Kulhan: Yes, I’m in an interview right now, buddy.

Casey Kulhan: Who’s here?

Bob Kulhan: It’s a new friend of mine, Steve.

Steve Pomeranz: It follows Smith, okay?

Bob Kulhan: All right, I love you, buddy. I’ll talk to you in a bit.

Steve Pomeranz: Bob Kulhan is father and also an actor and former faculty member in Chicago’s famed Second City. His company, Business Improv, creates corporate training programs to help people in business use the skills of improvisation to communicate better.

I think most people when they’re in a situation with somebody and they’re listening to somebody, they’re not actually listening, they’re thinking about what they’re going to say in response. And this idea that I read on your site about being in the moment, it’s kind of difficult, and it’s something that we’re not naturally inclined to do. What exercises would you say you’d give me, to make sure that I’m kind of staying in the moment and not thinking about myself?

Bob Kulhan: You are articulating one of the basic human communication pitfalls, in that we think about what we’re going to say next, as opposed to being focused and present in the moment and simply reacting to what somebody is saying to us. So, if we go back to “Yes And” as really our scarlet thread throughout improvisation and focus on it as a communication tool, the two words “Yes And” will actually slow the brain down so that you are focusing and present in the moment. Because “Yes” is yes, implied, “I hear you. You have my undivided attention. I’m listening to you right now, and not focused on any other three-and-a-half-year-old distractions that may come in.” “And,” then, is the bridge to show how I’m focused, how I’m present, how I’m simply reacting to you. So really, by using that two-word phrase “Yes And,” you are slowing the brain down to be present, to simply respond. And it can keep you from falling to that human communication pitfall of thinking about what to say next.

Steve Pomeranz: So many people I talk to, and I’m sure you’ve talked to, will say that their greatest fear is public speaking. They have tremendous stage fright. And even though I talk to the public a lot, I mean, I still get a little perspirey when it’s my turn, or whatever. It doesn’t necessarily come natural to me. How do you help these people, who are in small groups, you’re there trying to help them learn how to communicate, how do you get them beyond their stage fright?

Bob Kulhan: There’s multiple ways to hit a pinata, right? There’s more than one way to hit a pinata. What’s important to understand in the workshops is that these can manifest themselves in so many different ways, including what I call “ride the bike” type of programs. If you’re teaching somebody how to ride a bike, you don’t present it, and you don’t watch a video or read a case study about it, everybody’s up on the bike at the same time riding it.

Steve Pomeranz: Right.

Bob Kulhan: So, that’s number one, that there’s safety in numbers. We’re not highlighting people and making examples of them, good or bad. Now if you’re looking at a presentation program, that we’ve run many times, that use components of improvisation to strengthen reacting to the unexpected inside of a presentation, technology malfunctions, unexpected questions. Asking the right questions back to the audience, that’s a different scenario altogether.

One of the things that I direct people toward is the idea of engaging. And this goes back to something my mentor used to say to me. My mentor created the Second City Training Center, and he used to say, “To be interested is to be interesting.” And we’ve repurposed that in Business Improv to, “To be engaged is to be engaging.” So, as a presenter, instead of focusing on being nervous, or what you’re going to do, which is all internal thought, you’re pushing your head internal to say, “Oh, I’m so nervous. I gotta get outta my head and think about this.” Push it external. Push it out to your audience, and focus on engaging single individuals, and just say, “My job is to engage you.” In doing so, you’re going to be more engaging to them, and a result is, at least, an increased probability in your content being more impactful.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, get out of your brain. You know, some people say that you imagine the audience naked, but I find that totally distracting. That doesn’t help me one bit.

Bob Kulhan: I don’t want to see half the audience …

Steve Pomeranz: I really don’t want to see that, you know. Finally, using these techniques can strengthen your personal brand. This is something you speak about as well. And you want to get kind of prepared for any kind of meeting, I guess, no matter how small and no matter how large. You made the analogy that before you go outside you check to see what the weather is, and you take a moment to pull yourself together, dress appropriately, bring an umbrella, and it’s kind of the same technique you want to use because what you present as your personal brand really matters. Take us through that just a little bit. We have under a minute.

Bob Kulhan: Absolutely. First thing to understand is energy and attitude are choices. It’s a choice to be low energy, it’s a choice to have a bad attitude, it’s a choice to be high energy, and it’s a choice to have a good attitude. So, taking that same time that you would normally designate toward checking the weather, one or two minutes, and dressing appropriately and putting that time in before a meeting, an engagement, a phone call, to say, “Where’s my energy? Where’s my attitude? Am I physically and mentally at a place I need to be to execute at a very high level? To be elite at my job,” can pay itself off tremendously.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, so get energetic, stand up straight, just get into that game, that game …

Bob Kulhan: Smile.

Steve Pomeranz: Smile, that helps a lot.

Bob Kulhan: Oh, yeah.

Steve Pomeranz: My guest, Bob Kulhan, his company is called Business Improv, and you can find him at businessimprov.com. Thanks a lot, Bob, appreciate it. That was fun.

Bob Kulhan: Thank you so much. I appreciate it as well.

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