And not in that order.
Improvisation has changed my world. It’s changed everything in 20 years for me. It’s not just about honing your funny bone (and it will, Virginia, I promise!); the true lessons of improvisation are about so much more than being funny. In fact, improvisation makes us better marketers because it makes us better people.
(note: this is an update of an older post I wrote and published years ago).
Why? The short version: improvisation is jazz – the improv of the music world! – and we all need more agility, empathy and jazz! And jazz hands are awesome, too.
Here are 7 lessons (and there are more in my book, Stop Boring Me!) I’ve learned from improvisation that can take your marketing strategy to the next level and why I know improvisation makes us better marketers and people first. Improvisation trains us to:
Social engagement requires experimentation. In a world of big data and analytics, marketing is still a hell of a lot of art. Improvisation involves taking creative risks and following our gut (not just our head).
Risk is a muscle; when you exercise, it grows. To evolve, marketing has to take similar risks. Sometimes things won’t work. The more you take experiment, the more you fail quickly and discover what works. As with improvisation, in marketing there is no way to know if something works except one: doing it.
We are in one of the greatest periods of experimentation because of Covid-19 While we would not choose it, we are this moment that forces us all to be better and choose differently. I believe this is an inflection point is where we must improvise new directions.
“Yes, and” to Co-Create Something Better
Marketing means co-creating. “Yes, and…” is the cornerstone of improvisation. It’s the building block for great scenes.
For example, if your on-stage partner calls you “Mom,” you are a mom, and you must build onto the reality your partner creates. When we ‘deny’ an offer (yes, but…), the scene stalls. “Yes, but” someone and watch the reaction.
This happens every day at a subconscious level for most of us. You’ll notice that “yes, but…” kills creativity. In cultures filled with people who “yes, but” (which really means “no”), very little co-creating happens.
Great marketing involves “yes, and”-ing your audience. Your customer defines your brand in a way that is meaningful for them. As marketers, we shape it, yet positioning is ultimately in the hands of customers. Great marketers recognize that successful marketing is an act of co-creation with others. Adding on to customers’ stories and ideas makes your brand better, another way improvisation makes us better marketers.
Make Your Partner Look Good
Marketing is always about your customer. In improvisation, your goal is to make your stage partners look good by accepting what they offer (or what they choose). When you focus only on your choices, you compromise the continuity of the story you are creating together. Great marketing requires empathy, and you can connect with your customers by considering ways to make them more successful, delighted, and happy.
Drop the focus on your methodology, your jargon, and your baggage.
Marketing requires listening more than talking.One of the hardest things about improvisation is clearing your head so you can listen to your on-stage partner rather than thinking about what you are going to say next. Being present in the moment allows you to see opportunity and to react spontaneously.
When you listen more than you talk, you hear what your customers are saying about what they want and need. This allows marketers to react in real time to situations as we evolve towards a new era of ‘in the moment’ marketing.
Tell and Make Worthy Stories
Marketing – like improvisation – is all about storytelling and storyMAKING. Stories bring laughter, inspiration, and make us memorable. According to Jennifer Aaker at Stanford University, research shows that stories are remembered up to 22X more than facts alone. (tweet this)
Too many facts in improvisation (instead of reactions) can kill a scene. Remember: A scene is about people, and the most important thing in improvisation is the relationship the players have with each other on stage. It is the same with marketing. Marketing has to connect with our hearts – not just our heads. Stories make those emotional connections so we care about the brand.
I think the future right now – in part, because of Covid – isn’t just about telling stories; I think it’s storyMAKING – where companies are collaboratively creating stories with (not for or at) customers, partners, and employees. Create stories by becoming storyMAKERS. And for the love of all that is holy, remember (and I’ll say this until the cows come home! MOOOOOO!) your best storytellers are most often not in the C-suite or in marketing. Get outside the damn ‘marketing lab’ and talk to people. Marketing’s job is to get out of the way, find the and elevate the best storytellers and create WITH them.
Whew! Ok, carry on!
Follow the customer’s lead. In improvisation, players need to learn when to lead a scene, and when to follow someone else’s great idea to move the story forward. When the scene naturally coalesces around someone else’s idea, it’s in the best interest of the scene to rally around it instead of ‘driving’ the scene your way. In marketing, you have to know when to let go and follow your customers’ lead. Great marketing involves allowing our customers to shape those stories. Letting our advocates, our enthusiast customers, take the wheel allows us to learn what they need and how we can make them look good. Improvisers learn to let go because the outcomes are usually far better when we build something together.
Craft a ‘Ditchable’ Playbook
Plan, and always be ready to ditch the playbook. Marketing requires adaptability. Every day unforeseen stuff – both good and bad – happens. When stuff stops working, great marketers improvise. Failure is part of the improviser’s motto.
Improvisation isn’t just winging it – it requires preparation, skill, and big values such as trust. Once you know the rules, you can break them. The same is true of marketing. Marketers who prepare and are willing to adapt as needed will be the ones to succeed in a noisy world of rapid change where the rules are changing all the time. Solid brands adapt more easily precisely because they are prepared, yet also open to change.
Marketing is a lot like jazz. Its beauty isn’t in the predictable notes; it’s in the improvisation. So prepare, be open, let go, and adjust. And, yes, improvisation makes us better marketers. More importantly – and I have been doing it for over 20 years – it makes us better people. That’s worth something!