Improvising Answers in Business

December 19, 2007

Many business people ask how they can better improvise their responses to difficult questions in meetings. I had a similar question about difficult suggestions from the audience, after watching Tom McGee compete with his Improv troupe in the Canadian Improv Games.

In Improv, a group of people are put on the spot when they take seemingly random suggestions from an audience. Without any more than a minute or two of huddling together to confer, they are able to turn those suggestions into a coherent, funny sketch on stage.

So, I asked Tom how they do it. His answer?

“Structure. It’s all about structure.”

What? Improv is not spontaneous and unrehearsed? “No,” he said. “We use set structures of story, character, status and so on as our prepared structures and incorporate what the audience offers into those structures.”  The process still demands creativity, but that creativity is supported by prepared structures.

Structure gives the improvisers control of the situation. With it, the audience’s suggestions become part of a controlled performance. Without it, those same suggestions become large threats.

This is also the key for business people. They need to remember that they use structures to communicate every day. When the stress is less, it is easier to reach for those structures.  They come into use in responding to questions; they provide control and bring comfort.

Business people, in situations that are stressful, are often frozen by difficult questions. It’s the “deer in the headlights” effect. We should expect improvisers to suffer the same fate on stage. But the good ones don’t, because they reach for their known structures and use them to control whatever challenge the audience has given them.

Keith Johnstone says in his book, IMPRO Improvisation and the Theatre: “…it (narrative skill) also means that you look back when you get stuck, instead of searching forwards.”

When we teach media interactions, we talk about the “bridge” structure. Simply it means we either address or don’t address the specific question, and then use a word bridge, such as “the point that needs to be made is….” To take us back to the point we want to make. Certainly this structure could be and is used in other interactions, such as with customers.

Another structure used in media interactions is the “premise challenge”. Here, we challenge the premise of the question rather than answer it. We might say, “You’ve based your question on some inaccurate data. I think we need to correct that….” Now that we’ve taken control, we can move the discussion to where it is more comfortable for us. Again, a technique most people use without thinking. It is important to understand the structures we use in communicating, so that they can be consciously applied in any situation.

The empathy approach – words and actions – in situations of high concern and low trust is another control structure. In fact, it is an extremely powerful control structure when someone is expressing anger to us. I have broadened my own take on this. I call it ACUESAA: Acknowledge, Concern, Understanding, Empathy, Sympathy, Agreement, Action. Any of these responses, alone or in combination, create a structure to reduce concern and build trust. This approach is effective with any audience.

Here are some other structures that can be used by business people:

  • Rule of three. When a difficult question is asked, people can freeze and not know why. Then they begin to focus on their freeze-up and their anxiety just feeds on itself. If they take a lesson from Improv and Keith Johnstone, then they need to look back and not forward. Of all the things they could say, what three things would they choose? Selecting that structure often brings content to mind almost automatically. Therefore, control is established and the ice is broken. Sometimes it is tough to come up with three, but, as in Improv, the skill of using this structure can be learned and practiced.
  • Chronology. This structure is time based. To respond to the question, the content is organized and delivered in chronological order. “It’s important to start at the beginning…And finally we arrive at today….”
  • Too Hot. Too Cold. Just Right. Most of us know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In it, everything was analyzed in that manner. So, using this structure, we can find the options that are unacceptable and the one that is.

As with Improv, the answer for business people to handle difficult questions is to find a control structure that gives them confidence and comfort in stressful interactions.

Copyright 2005/2007