Know how hard it is to find a visual representation for “improv” that isn’t a bunch of college-aged dudes in black shirts making wacky expressions? This is from artist Judy Watson.

5 Improv Lessons for Copywriters

Advertising is full of people who have a background in improv.

It’s easy to see why: it’s great training, it teaches you how to create something for an audience, and it’s loads of fun.

I won’t bore you with my own history in improv, but there are a few lessons that have served me well.

1. There are a gazillion options.

One of my favorite improv exercises is a game called “New Choice.” You are up on stage, creating a scene, and somebody off stage rings a bell and you have to change the last thing you said. Once the bell stops, the scene continues based on the new information.

Lots of times the bell will ring numerous times in a row and you’ll end up moving forward with the fifth or sixth random thing that’s popped into your brain. This is almost always unexpected and more interesting than the thing that you came up with originally.

(For example: “I’m going out to grab a bite to eat. (Ding) …to pick up my laundry. (Ding) …to buy a poodle. (Ding) …to marry my dentist.” Hey! Let’s see where THAT goes!)

And it’s a great reminder that there’s never just one way to solve a problem. Most advertising briefs have the initial, obvious solutions. The real art is to push past these first-draft thoughts and get to more interesting territory.

When working on an assignment, I often play a game of “New Choice” with myself to try and push the work to someplace new. Yes, much of it is weird garbage. But every now and then you get a great nugget.

It’s also a great lesson to remember when your creative director or client is unhappy. It’s easy to fall in love with an idea and think that it’s the only way. There’s never an “only way,” and you should look at those moments as opportunities to make something even better.

2. Less is more.

If you perform improv in front of an audience long enough, you start to realize how exciting and dramatic “simple” can be.

New students of improv often fall over themselves to create scenes where there’s loads of dramatic tension and/or where crazy shit happens.

But I once saw an audience go nuts over a scene where one guy vacuumed his apartment for 10 minutes. That’s it. That’s all that happened. Aliens didn’t emerge from the vacuum, he just had a hell of a time getting the machine to pick up this one piece of garbage. It was real, simple, fascinating and hilarious.

Sometimes we cram so much into our scripts or ideas that we lose the plot. We lose the clear, simple, human idea that makes something really resonate.
It can be difficult to do this work on your own — a good partner or creative director can help you focus on the simple truth and prune away all the extra stuff you don’t need.

3. The audience is smart.

There’s a lot of cynicism in advertising about the audience. We often treat them like idiots and then seem surprised that most advertising is crap.

Again, live performance teaches you a lot in this area. When you’re improvising, you’re creating a story in real time. And when you do it right, the audience is right there with you, co-creating the story in their own mind. They fill in the gaps and connect the dots and understand subtext without having everything spelled out for them.

You hear about this in movies and TV shows all the time, in director interviews and DVD commentaries. They tell the story about how a particular scene had a page-long monologue that was handled instead with a simple expression or a scene that was cut because the audience was further along than the characters.

Let’s assume that our audience is smart. That we can start in the middle and that they’ll figure it out. That they WANT good content and not just a diet of mindless garbage.

4. Stay positive.

One of the tenets of improv is “Yes, and…” because staying positive and saying “yes” is how you create stories. Saying “no” shuts down the story and creates a dead end.

It doesn’t mean avoiding conflict in the story (the cornerstone of drama) or that everything is Pollyanna rainbows and unicorns, but it does mean staying open to possibilities.

It’s not easy. It’s amazingly easy to “go negative.” When everything is happy and healthy, humans seem to be hardwired to want to mix it up. You see it on the improv stage all the time and you see it in lots of advertising work.

Yes, lots of advertising falls into the “problem/solution” category and you need to dramatize the negative to highlight the positive. But there are plenty of opportunities where copywriters have a choice and “going positive” can often be a refreshing change of pace that leads to more interesting work.

Oh, and when I say “stay positive,” I’m talking about the work, not a general attitude toward the assignment. Although, as a freelancer, I do find that you get invited back more frequently if you stay upbeat during the long slog.

5. Mistakes are gifts.

On the improv stage, you make “mistakes” all the time. You misspeak. You call somebody the wrong name. You do something you’re not supposed to be doing.

But what’s magical about improv is when the group simply accepts these “mistakes,” incorporates them into the story and moves forward. It delights an audience and usually leads to a more interesting story.

This happens in advertising too. How many times has a mangled sentence created a memorable tagline? Or an accidental “joke” about a spot opened up the real creative opportunity?

We need to be less precious about this. It ain’t rocket surgery (another favorite “mistake”) and we should embrace the little accidents that take us down unexplored corridors. There may be something interesting down there. Let’s look, shall we?

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About the Author

John Kovacevich is a copywriter and creative director based in San Francisco. He was a company member at BATS Improv and Killing My Lobster and has performed on the UCB stage in Los Angeles and New York.

More from John:

Writing is Not a Team Sport (Yes, ironic given the improv/collaboration theme of the above piece, but read it and you’ll see what I mean.)

12 Things You Should Expect from a Creative Director

6 1/2 Ways to Fix Cannes Lions (That Will Never Happen)