Putting Your Improv Skills to Work

My career path has been pretty improvised.

Currently, I am a writer for an advertising agency. But three years ago, I didn’t know the position of “copywriter” even existed. I majored in history through some misguided attempt to earn a PHD and toil away in academia, teaching uninterested, hormonal college students about Napoleon.

image

But that didn’t happen. During my junior year, I decided I was fed up with school, and I started thinking about what new, big-boy job I wanted. That year, I applied for a summer internship with the US Embassy in France (because of my limited knowledge of the French language and my limited understanding of world politics, gleaned mostly from the Daily Show).

Although I was offered the internship, through a series of comic misfortunes, the government forgot to send me vital paperwork and everything fell through.

During this period of summer unemployment, a friend hooked me up with his company – a marketing startup that was searching for a writer. I showed up to the interview with a laughable “portfolio” that included a grant I had written during a past internship as well as a short story and a history paper that had been published in the school’s journals. And, on top of that, I had the audacity to ask that the internship be paid.

Comically, not only did I land the gig, they also offered to pay. From there, they offered me a full-time job. That turned into another full-time job at a competing agency, which, 5 months ago, turned into another full-time job at another competing agency.

Three years ago, I would have never been able to conceive of the career path I have taken, but over the years, my confidence in my ability to find and land jobs has gone way up. In my most recent interview, I found that for the first time, I wasn’t actually nervous. I knew I could take what I had learned in improv and use those skills to navigate and nail an interview.

If you’re currently looking for a new job (or will be sometime in your life), the principles of improv can help you go from nervous bag of slop to employable superstar.

 image

Here are a few helpful improv tips to use at each major job-getting junction.

PART I: Finding the Job

Before you can apply to a job or attend an interview, you have to find a position first. Sure, there are job boards out there or company sites where you can apply online. Sometimes, that’s successful, but only insomuch as you know where you want to work, what exactly you want to do, or where exactly there are openings. Plus, we all know what really counts: it’s who you know, not what you know.

  • Listen. The easiest way to find out about cool jobs and/or make the connections necessary to land them is by talking to and listening to other people. Improvisers are often good at approaching others cold turkey and striking up a conversation. Attend a meetup like Treehouse and just start making new friends. But instead of asking about or for a job, just get interested in who someone is, why they do what they do, and how they got there. Listen to their answers. Add value to the conversation. People love talking about themselves, and when you run into them later and remember your conversation, you’ll come across as memorable.
  • Say yes. No matter how happy you are at your current job or how busy you are, you’re never too busy for a free lunch. If someone says they can connect you with someone else interesting or if  someone asks you to a lunch (or coffee, interview, or whatever), always say yes. The opportunity may not be interesting, you may legitimately be too busy, but you also may discover something amazing that you never knew existed. At worst, you get a free lunch and a new connection and you can always say “no, but.”

PART II: The Interview

If you make it to the interview stage, this is probably when you’re probably feeling those same butterflies you feel right before the host calls your team to the stage. Who knows how many other candidates the company has called. How many of them are more qualified, more experienced, more attractive? Chances are, at least one. So what can you do?

  • You already know all the answers. I always harp on the fact that in an improv scene, you don’t have to ask questions because you already know the answers. You don’t need to wait to have an opinion. Job interviews are similar. You know what you know and you have to bring that to the table. You have to express an opinion of who you are, what you stand for, and why you’re right for the job. It’s all you can do. And if you act like you know the answers, you might actually find that you do know them.
  • The first five lines are the most important. Like any improv scene, the beginning of the interaction will set the tone for the entire relationship. Like mom always said, make a good first impression and the rest will follow.
  • Be honest and open. This was probably the biggest lesson I learned. The person interviewing you doesn’t want to hire some automaton with the most practiced, perfect answers and no personality. Your honest and genuine responses will beat out experience more often than it should. People want to hire people they like and can relate to. If you’re honest about your strengths and weakness, your hobbies and interests, and have an actual conversation, you’ll make a real connection with someone, which gives you a big leg up over the robot guy. 15 minutes into my most recent interview, the Executive Creative Director actually said, “Ok, now that we have the bullshit out of the way, let’s talk about stuff you enjoy. You seem like an interesting guy.” So we both talked about our comedy backgrounds, and I got a new job.
  • Play the game and match energy. If your interviewer talks fast and asks a lot of questions, try to keep up. If they have a sophisticated air, try to match their energy. If they play hardball, chances are they want you to play hardball back.
  • Don’t take it personally. We all have bad shows. Maybe we were brain-farting. Maybe our scene partner wasn’t picking up on our game. Maybe we lost a cage match because the other team had more friends or maybe they just blew us out of the water. All of those things are outside of your control. If you brought your A-game, there’s nothing else you could have done. Be satisfied in knowing you did all you could.

PART III: Your New Job

Congrats on landing the job. That’s awesome! But your not home free yet. Your first month or two is sort of an extended interview as you prove yourself and integrate into the office culture, making yourself an integral cog in the machine.

  • You’re Good Enough. When I started my new job, I was definitely feeling some imposter syndrome – the whole, I’m not good enough and they’ll realize I’m a fake thing. I experience that on stage a lot. But, if the company hired you, you’re good enough. Hell, even Anna Kendrick gets nervous! “If you want a job and all you want to do is get the job, book the job, and then you get it and then the new fear sets in of “oh, what if I’m not good. Getting the job feels like the challenge and then you get it and then the new wave of anxiety sets in.” Just know that if they hired you, nothing else matters – maybe you were their second choice. Maybe you don’t have 100% of the experience you need. If they picked you, they believe in you. So believe in yourself, dummy.
  • Play Yourself + 10%. On stage I always say play yourself plus an extra ten percent extra emotion. At the new job, definitely play yourself. Don’t try to fake it or be someone you’re not. This isn’t high school. But here, the 10% isn’t emotion. It’s effort. Be 10% friendlier. Be 10% more involved. Be 10% more accommodating.
  • When the scene is over, cut it. Maybe you found your dream job. Maybe you didn’t. Play a scene as long as it’s fun or until you max out. When you’re not having fun or the scene is tanking, it’s time to move on. Same for any job.

I don’t get nervous anymore about meeting people I barely know for coffee or showing up to an interview. Sure, I do my research and have a few great stories in my back pocket about a time I solved a problem with a team (hint: improv) or an example of a time someone didn’t carry their weight. But I don’t stress. I don’t really practice. I just show up, open and honest, knowing my improv background will carry me the rest of the way.

Pssst! Did you know that we have a mailing list? Did you know you could SIGN UP TO BE SPAMMED every other week by yours truly? Just say “yes, and” to getting these posts in your inbox.

Leave a Reply