Improv in the Workplace: Conversation with Nancy Ancowitz and Carl Kissin

Created: Wednesday, October 18, 2017, posted by Geetesh Bajaj at 9:30 am

Updated: at



Nancy AncowitzNancy Ancowitz is the author of Self-Promotion for Introverts®. As a presentation and career coach, she helps clients—introverts and extroverts alike—with vital career-building and leadership skills. Nancy was recognized for running successful marketing programs for a multibillion-dollar business as a vice president at JP Morgan Chase & Co.; at Citibank, she received an outstanding achievement award for her innovations in creating marketing proposals for international clients. She teaches at New York University. A blogger for Psychology Today and Salary.com, her work been covered by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, WABC-TV, and O, The Oprah Magazine.

Carl KissinCarl Kissin has performed more than 4,000 shows for the renowned improv comedy troupe Chicago City Limits. He has been the company’s head writer and director of their National Touring Company. As an instructor, he has taught improv team-building workshops, created customized shows, and improvised for more than one-hundred Fortune 500 companies. He would be delighted to do the same for any groups and companies in India. Carl has performed his own material on “The Today Show,” and played the character Glenn in Oliver Stone’s movie Talk Radio. He has written book and lyrics for two award-winning musicals.

Geetesh: What does improv mean, and how can it help in the workplace?

Carl: Improv means listening and responding on the spot. It means being nimble enough to adjust in the moment when you don’t get the questions or responses you might expect. It means thinking anew even on a topic you know well, so that you personalize interactions to fit your audience — whether that be one person or a crowd.

Nancy: Bringing this into the business arena, think of a time when you or someone you know shared an idea at a meeting that got shot down. Yet, if others had entertained the idea with the improv concept of “yes-and” — accepting what someone else puts forth (YES) and adding on to it (AND), it might have led to something wonderful.

Improvisation is the single most valuable skill I’ve learned in my career. Learning to speak on the spot has been incredibly helpful at business meetings, negotiations, and innumerable public speaking scenarios. It’s also a vital skill for introverts, who like me, prefer composing our thoughts in our heads before we speak.

Carl: People mistakenly think that improv means being “fast on your feet,” but taking a moment to evaluate a situation and coming up with an excellent response is far superior to instantly saying something ill-considered. By being confident in silence instead of apologetic, you can buy yourself extra time that you can use wisely.

Geetesh: The two of you recently started collaborating on presentations and a webinar on the topic of thinking on your feet for business audiences. Can you share a story about how your approaches to improv have helped individuals you’ve worked with?

Nancy: I was working with a client with a need for transparent relationships with his co-workers. It’s important to him to share a little about one another’s personal lives as a foundation for building trust. Yet his boss is a private person, and that frustrated him. He realized he was taking things too personally and adjusted his expectations. By instead “meeting her where she is” — an improv skill that uses observation and active listening — he is now more patient with successfully building that relationship.

Carl: Yes, your ability to target your audience, or really get to know their likes and dislikes, is essential. I worked with a client who was not fully fluent in English. By practicing person-to-person interactions and different ways of speaking to co-workers, he became much more comfortable at communicating. Our practice wasn’t a lot of business do’s and don’ts; it was play. At first, we acted silly to exercise the “improv muscle.” Then we tried different ways to bring out his personality. Then we toned down the silliness to be more appropriate for a corporate environment. But going on that journey was essential for him. Improv gives you techniques and permission to take risks.

Nancy: It also enables you to re-channel fears — whether it’s a fear of finding the right words, embarrassment, sweating, shaking, or being criticized — into the excitement of tackling something as life-affirming as speaking confidently on the spot. Remember that you have many contributions to make. And no one will know about them unless you speak up. So here’s to your success!

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