Learning From Improv

A form of comedy can build confidence and agility in Ph.D.s going into job interviews, writes Jake Livengood.

June 15, 2015
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“I learned how important it is to present myself in a confident way during interviews. I really enjoyed the improv games. They were fun and helped build confidence, as well as speaking skills.”

This feedback came from a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who attended an improv workshop I coordinated with career services and ImprovBoston, a local improvisational comedy group. At MIT, I provide career guidance with Ph.D. students from all academic departments as they prepare for a variety of career paths, both nonacademic and academic.

In either type of career path, interviewing can conjure a range of emotions: Some dread it. Some enjoy it. Some may just tolerate it. Interviews can certainly be a nerve-racking experience!

Improv has helped me develop confidence. I took my first improv class a few years ago and have found that I am more confident during my teaching and workshops. Improv also provided an additional tool to practice the unexpected in an environment where nothing is officially considered right or wrong. Since I have had such a positive experience with improv and our students from the workshop rated it highly, I thought others might benefit from these experiences as well with the tips below.

What Is Improv Comedy?

Improv is not about being the funniest person in the room. It is different from stand-up comedy, where one person is the show. Improv is about teamwork and creating a story with teammates so the scene is entertaining and funny, rather than one person being the focus of attention. Improv classes are offered in many ways, through local training centers or community organizations. People from many academic and professional walks of life take improv classes to build communication and teamwork skills. In my improv classes in Boston at Improv Asylum, I have taken classes with college students, consultants, teachers, customer service workers, event planners, lawyers and even a funeral home director.

Who Uses and Values Improv?

Improv is used by companies and educational institutions to help employees and students learn communication and teamwork skills. In Boston, the Improv Asylum, a local improv company that provides shows and corporate training, jokingly advertises its services by saying, "We've trained Boston University, Harvard and MIT… I guess that means we have a doctorate now." In addition, improv training has been used by various companies in nonacademic settings, including those in biotech, pharma, high tech, consulting, publishing and finance. Many companies and organizations that Ph.D. students highly desire to work for have used improv training with their employees.

How Does Improv Help With Interviewing?

During an interview, employers want to assess how a candidate thinks and responds to various questions and situations. Some of these questions or situations may be anticipated by the interviewee and some may be unexpected. In nonacademic settings, questions can take the form of cases, technical or behavioral questions to name a few. In academic settings, this evaluation may take the form of a chalk talk or research presentation with follow-up questions. Regardless of the type of industry, interview preparation is a strong key to success. Developing highlights of your background is essential to help the interviewer get to know your fit with the position.

However, you cannot prepare for all questions that may be asked or all of the scenarios that may arise. With this in mind, improv helps you prepare for the unexpected, build confidence, develop self-awareness and add details to questions.

1. Prepare for the unexpected.

I am a strong believer in preparing for interviews. Improv can help you prepare (and simulate) unexpected and ambiguous settings, much like you will face in an interview. Interviewers sometimes intentionally ask questions that are unexpected to see how candidates respond. Because the environment is unexpected in improv, this simulates an interview setting and offers a chance to practice communicating in a potentially uncomfortable environment.

2. Build confidence.

Successful interviews often stem from how one provides answers to questions. As an instructor said in my improv class, “Show confidence in all that you do on stage and the audience will believe it. Show doubts and you'll lose the audience.” The same is true with interviewing. In addition, it is easy to dwell on what you said previously in an interview, which may impact answers to the subsequent questions. In improv, a teacher said it best: “You learn to move on. Even if it is the worst scene you’ve ever done, it goes away. You get another opportunity.”

3. Practice being uncomfortable and develop self-awareness.

Interviewing can be very uncomfortable. Improv provides an opportunity to learn about how you respond when you are nervous. During the improv workshop at MIT, one activity particularly came to mind regarding this area. Students stood in a line and then continuously asked random questions one after the other in a rapid-fire format to another student who played the interviewee. This student was challenged to respond by saying something confidently. It didn’t have to be the right answer, and the goal was to say something with confidence. After the activity, the group processed what it felt like to be asked so many unexpected questions and then the interviewee identified how they could have responded better both verbally and nonverbally.

4. Use "Yes and" to add details to questions.

One key improv skill is using “Yes and.” The goal is to add details to a scene that is mutually created with all involved. “Yes and” adds details to a scene and helps define the characters, location and relationship to one another. In interviewing, using “Yes and” can help develop details to your responses.

It can also help create a positive mind-set when asked an unexpected question. As you approach an unexpected interview question, it is easy to first think "no" or something negative to an interview question. For example, when an interviewer asks you, "Tell me about a time when you addressed conflict in a group," you might easily think, “No! Run! I really don't want to answer this!” However, if you are in the mind-set of always being willing to engage and mentally say yes to an interview question, you are prepared to provide a more confident answer.

What Can I Do to Try Improv? How Can I Improve My Interviewing Skills?

There are often options available both within a university and in the surrounding community. College student improv groups are a great way to learn about improv. Community organizations and theaters also provide trainings. Training can happen from a variety of groups ranging from a community class to a theater or professional improv company. Introductory improv courses often focus on improv games where you will learn how to react to situations, support your classmates and use “Yes and.” There are certainly additional ways to improve interviewing skills, including use of your campus career center, where mock interviews are typically offered. Practice will help you feel more confident as you reach toward that next career step.


Jake Livengood is assistant director of graduate student career services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Global Education & Career Development.


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