Comedy Improv: Ideation Central

Fear is an unavoidable part of the creative life, but too much of it can stifle your imagination. Discover how improv training can give you the courage to let go of your worries—and positively fuel your idea-sparking potential.

Dr. Charles Limb is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Department of Otolaryngology, the branch of medicine dealing with disorders of the ear, nose and throat (which makes him an interesting choice to formalize a study on creativity). He used an fMRI to scan the brain activity of jazz musicians while they played both a memorized piece of music and an improvised one. The scans revealed something interesting: “During improv, the brain deactivates the area involved in self-monitoring and observation, while cranking up the region linked with self-expression,” Limb explains. In short, the subjects demonstrated creativity by turning off the part of the brain that fears failure.


Illustration by Davor Pavelić;

Creativity is simply problem-solving with both relevance and novelty. To offer an applicable solution to a problem takes little bravery, but to offer a novel solution takes something altogether different. Novelty is rare. Few find it on the first try, which means failure becomes a requirement of the hunt. How good are you at failing? It’s probably not a skill you list on your résumé, but it could be the secret to becoming an idea machine.

How can you train yourself to dance with failure rather than run from it? Limb may have had part of the answer all along: improv.

Comedy improv is a form of unscripted theater. Actors perform off-the-cuff, reacting to fellow players, environments, the audience or predetermined performance rules. Many improv actors will start with the structure of a game or exercise and then solicit scenario ideas from audience members to fill in missing elements of the scene.

Creatively speaking, comedy improv training acts as an extreme workout for ideation, pushing your ability to generate ideas quickly. As you condition yourself to do so, the quality of the ideas you produce will improve at a similar rate.

While there are a number of positive effects that comedy improv training can have on your creativity, I’ll focus on four ways that improv can enhance your personal ideation, help you develop stronger brainstorming techniques and bolster your creative potential. I’ll also offer four exercises for you to do to help put these theories into practice.

Clip from Stefan Mumaw’s HOW Design Live 2014 session
“Comedy Improv Training for Creatives.”

1. How To Build on an idea

Improv has one seminal rule: Always think “Yes, and …” The basic purpose of “Yes, and …” is one of agreement, meaning you never shut down an idea, but rather accept it and build upon it.

Now, let’s break down the two steps to this rule that you need to master in order to benefit from improv training. First, there’s the “Yes.” This is recognition and acceptance of the other person’s idea. No judgment, just reception. This means that when an actor brings something into the scene, it’s immediately real. There is no discussion over that idea’s validity or potential. It’s now truth. Then there’s the “and …” This is where you are tasked with adding something of value to this new idea, so that the scene may continue.

Let’s illustrate this concept with an improv game called Eulogy.

Get two to three players to join you. I’m going to give you a man’s name, his occupation and his age. Let’s say his name is Percy—he’s a male model and he died at the age of 89. Your job is to give Percy’s eulogy. You’ll go around in a circle with each player offering a sentence or two for the eulogy. Every time a player contributes something to the eulogy, it’s now fact, and the next player can use that fact to build upon Percy’s life. Give yourself a three-minute time limit to complete the exercise.

Here, you build upon the new truths that are introduced by the players before you. As each player offers their part of the eulogy, a new reality is formed. You simply react to this new reality. You apply the basic rule of “Yes, and …” every time your turn comes up by accepting the new truth and adding to it.

Now imagine this scenario in a brainstorming session. Each person who offers an idea to the group is creating an opportunity for you to say “Yes, and …” to that idea and then build upon it, make it stronger or add a new component. The more practice you get applying the “Yes, and …” principle in an improv environment, the more adept you become at applying it in an ideation environment.

2. How To Riff

Most would say the purpose of brainstorming is to solve a problem, but effective brainstormers know that the goal of an ideation session should instead be to offer possibilities. Solving a problem is easy. Solving a problem multiple times in different ways is hard.

It’s completely human, however, to want to solve the problem during the brainstorm. It gives you the illusion of control. Unfortunately, control rarely leads to novel ideas.

One of the fundamental lessons of comedy improv is that you have no real control over the scene. It teaches you to trust that the moment is enough, and that the outcome, while impossible to predict, is better than what would occur if you controlled the journey on your own.

When you give up control, you begin to do what musicians call riffing, which is simply reacting to a creation with one of your own. If building takes an idea and constructs vertically upon it, riffing is an exercise in developing horizontal ideas. They’re complementary to one another, and each could be built upon further if desired.

Let’s show this principle in a game called Alphabet.

Get a partner for this exercise and choose someone to start. The two of you are going to have a conversation of alternating sentences, but each sentence has to originate with the subsequent letter of the alphabet. Your starter begins the conversation with this predefined sentence: “Are you flying alone today?” The partner then responds with a sentence that begins with the letter ‘B,’ and so on—until you finish the alphabet.

Regardless of your predefined beginning, you both lose control of this situation by the letter ‘C.’ Without knowing the next sentence, you begin to riff.

Good brainstorming sessions are a collection of builds and riffs. An idea is presented, and the other participants can either use that new reality to build upon the original or become inspired to offer another complementary idea. By giving up control and reacting to each idea as it’s offered, you give yourself an opportunity to find novelty organically.

3. How To Be Courageous

In every brainstorming session, there’s an inevitable lull in the production of ideas. One of the most effective methods of turning that lull into activity again is to offer a crazy idea. By breaking free from the ordinary, you open up the potential field of solutions. The problem is, few people are willing to look stupid, even if it’s for the greater good of the group. It takes courage to offer novelty.

Let’s illuminate this idea with a game called Evil Stick of Gum.

Get two to three players for this game. You’re going to act out a scene together. Your scene revolves around a group of down-and-out hairdressers on a road trip to Las Vegas. One of you is chewing an evil stick of gum that can speak. The goal of the gum is to get the chewer into trouble. The other characters don’t know about the evil stick of gum—they just think the words are coming straight from the chewer. Play out the scene for at least four minutes.

It’s nearly impossible to be the chewer in this scene without exhibiting some level of courage. There’s a certain freedom to it; you have no choice, and everyone knows it.

Now imagine a group ideation session with the same freedom. That kind of freedom would allow a group to explore the most novel of directions because the fear of looking stupid would be tempered. Improv demands courage; it’s baked into the practice. Effective brainstorming demands courage as well.

4. How To Be Absurd

I’m going to give you a problem, and I want you to think about a solution. The challenge: Design a backpack for a third-grader, either drawing it or listing the features. Is it novel? Let’s try that again, but with one small change: Create an absolutely absurd backpack for a third-grader. Make it ridiculous. Which one is more novel? Probably the latter because you started at the other end of the novelty spectrum. The ideas included in this backpack probably have to be toned down to be viable, but when you’re searching for novelty, it’s easier to pull back from absurdity than it is to push forward from ordinary.

Let’s explore the concept of absurdity with an exercise called Three Things.

Get a partner for this exercise. You’re going to act out a simple scene: feeding a cat. As you act out the scene, your partner is going to change three things about the scene: the cat, the food and you. Your partner will change each thing one at a time and can change it as many times as desired. For instance, as you begin the scene, your partner may say, “The cat is a mountain lion,” which would change the way you would feed it, of course. Do this exercise for three minutes and then switch roles.

This game usually enters into absurdity quickly. Odds are, however, that you’ll be forced into new and interesting territory because of that absurdity. Improv often pushes players into absurd scenarios to create something unique. In short, it drives you into novelty.

Now it’s time to take these four lessons and apply them to your very own creative process. As you generate ideas, employ a “Yes, and …” strategy in order to build and explore new possibilities. Give up control of the ideation flow and react to the ideas as they come. Bravely offer unusual thoughts, even if they aren’t fully formed. Instead of starting with ordinary solutions that need to be pushed forward into novel territory, be willing to offer absurd ideas and pull them back to a more relevant place.

These tips will get you started with embracing the ideals of improv that’ll positively impact your ideation, brainstorming techniques and creative potential. So get started by saying “Yes, and ….”


Get your hands on1114_cover_300 the November 2014 issue of HOW, our Creative Business issue. This issue delves into the different aspects of the business of design, whether you’re a designer working from a remote location or in a small design firm, we’ve got you covered. Plus, find out if your creative process is killing your creativity, and what steps you can take to avoid stifling your creative mojo.