What Improv Can Teach Us About Innovation and Community Engagement

photo by World Domination Designs, used via creative commons

With the debut of Spotlight, the film about the Boston Globes investigation into the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal, there has been a lot of discussion about cinematic portrayals of journalism.

I wanted to talk with someone who has worked in both theatre and newsrooms about what acting could teach journalists. Amanda Hirsch was the director for PBS.org and has consulted on projects with NPR, TED and the Paley Center for Media amongst many others. She is also a celebrated speaker and improv star, who was voted a SXSW audience favorite for a talk she and her husband gave about improv lessons for freelancers.

We discussed the similarities and differences between theatre and journalism, and what improv could teach newsrooms about innovation, community engagement and telling new kinds of stories.

(A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review)


JS: Improv is all about making things up and journalism is all about getting at the truth. How have you navigated these two kinds of work and what do you see as the intersection?

AH: My first reaction to this is, both improv and journalism are actually about listening to find the truth.

Illustration by Studio Beerhorst, used via creative commons

Jokey improv is about making things up — “we’re on the moon, wheee!” — but the best, most sophisticated improv comedy is really about patiently discovering, with your partner, the truth that is already there on stage, from the moment the actors make thier first choices.

For example: We step on stage. You register my body language, my facial expressions. I do the same. I register how I feel about you, and you do the same. One of us says something. Line by line, we go from there… we’re inventing something, but it’s more like the old Michelangelo quote about removing clay to find the sculpture that’s been there all along. In the best improv, you aren’t scrambling with this kind of chaotic energy to create… you’re communing with other actors to reveal the dynamic that exists between you.

In that way, improv really is about listening with all of your senses. The same is true for journalism. You can’t just come in with your own ideas about what happened, or what should happen — you have to put your own agenda aside, as much as a person and focus on listening to the community you cover, your source… the story.


JS: Of course, journalists often come into communities with narratives already in mind that shape our coverage. In journalism as in improv, our stories are often circumscribed by our lived experiences. The challenge and the possibility of real engagement is the possibility of being pushed beyond those experiences to something new. Real engagement with another person — on stage or in the community — can create the conditions for discovery.

One of the central tenants of improv that reinforces that sense of discovery is “Yes, and…” can you talk a bit about what that phrase means?

AH: Absolutely. Improv has become so buzzed-about in the business press in the last decade, and “yes, and” is the improv concept that seems to get the most attention.

“Yes, and” means, you should accept what your scene partner offers, then add to it. So if I say “That was a great party”… your response should accept the truth I’ve put forward, and expand the scene from there. “Yes, that was a great party, and please never let me drink tequila again” — not necessarily comedy gold, but at least we’re creating a shared reality. That’s what “yes, and” lets us do: create a shared reality, on the fly, together.

“Yes, and” has huge applications for innovation in newsrooms.

JS: I can see how this idea intersects with notions of listening mentioned above, and of empathy. But in journalism we “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” We are taught to be skeptical, to get multiple sources, to rarely take thing on face value. How do we square “Yes, and…” with that?

AH: Well, saying “yes, and,” doesn’t necessarily mean you like or even agree with what the other person said. What it means is, you recognize that you need to work together to create something, and you are going to build on the information the other person has shared.

So, yes-and’ing a source doesn’t mean buying everything they tell you, hook, line and sinker. Honestly, “yes, and” might mean verifying what your source tells you by talking to three additional sources — “yes, Source A tells me she loves me, and, Sources B, C and D tells me she does not.” To simply accept what your source tells you at face value would just being saying “yes.” Additional verification is the “and.”


JS: I can see how that opens up new kinds of possibilities. Outside the reporting process, how might “Yes and” be applied to how newsrooms operate, how we honor voices that don’t always get heard, how we build new kinds of storytelling or news products?

AH: “Yes, and” has huge applications for innovation in newsrooms. Let’s say you’re in a brainstorming meeting about designing a new mobile app. Someone throws out an idea you think is just really terrible. Well, be that as it may, they’re in the room for a reason. They’re a stakeholder. You aren’t in a world where you get to design this thing solo.

Illustration by ISKME, used via creative commons

So…try to say “yes, and” to their idea by accepting that it’s out there and building upon it. As my husband, Jordan, puts it, too many people approach creativity as a zero-sum game: If your idea is good, mine can’t be. So we compete to be the smartest, the best. I think the culture is shifting to be more collaborative, in all parts of our lives, but there is still this instinct to differentiate ourselves by saying “no, but.”

If nothing else, “yes and” helps you build goodwill and trust between teammates, and without that, true innovation really isn’t possible. And maybe something that comes out of exploring that idea you think is really terrible will actually be worthwhile. “Yes, and” really is an incredible tool for unlocking the full creative potential of a group of people. It’s hard because it means letting go of ego… letting go of the idea that you’re the smartest person in the room.


JS: It seems like “Yes, and” — focusing on building on people’s ideas not trying to refute them — would also help make more space for junior and mid-level staffers to have a say in the design and innovation process. I think you and I both know a lot of young journalists working in newsrooms who feel like their ideas aren’t respected or aren’t even heard. So “Yes, and” — and improv more generally — can make room for more diverse voices inside newsrooms as well as outside them.

Absolutely. And of course, management sets the tone, but people at every level really can lead by example. People in our workshops say, “I need those jerks over in accounting to take this workshop, so they can start yes-and’ing, too” (that’s just an example — I don’t mean to pick on accountants. My dad is an accountant, I love accountants. But I digress.) Yes, in an ideal world, we’d all get the principles of improv emblazoned in our minds at birth! For now, we need to settle for leading by example, even if that means leading up.

In improv circles, a lot of times we’ll remind each other to treat everyone on stage with you as a genius. It’s not about being a humanitarian; it’s just pragmatic. It leads to better scenes. If you’re onstage judging everything everyone else is doing, the audience sees it. They’re bored. But if you “yes, and” the heck out of your scene partners, even if you have 20 years of experience and they have 2… you can actually create a great show.

Illustration by ISKME, used via creative commons

JS: I’ve been writing a lot about how we can build journalism with community, not just for it. How could Improv shape the way we think about co-creating journalism with our communities? What tools or values might it offer for that kind of work?

I think it means being willing to treat members of the community as scene partners — truly listening to them and showing them respect by yes-and’ing the ideas they share. This is hard; it’s tempting to offer opportunities for input, say a polite “thank you,” and then proceed with business as usual. But this isn’t real engagement…and it doesn’t offer the potential for collaborative creative genius that improv techniques enable.

Let’s take an example. Maybe you publish a story, and in the comments, you see people saying, “Yes, this is true, but you missed this entire dimension of things. What about X?” Well, as a news outlet, you now have an opportunity to be responsive (to engage) and to say — either in a comment or in a subsequent story, or both — “We hear you. Let’s talk more about X.” Listening to the community helps inform coverage, the way listening to your scene partner informs the scene.


JS: Right. And it doesn’t have to wait until the comment sections. In conversations, at events, on social media — “Yes, and…” is a reminder to be open, to respect that people are experts in their own experiences and have something to share that we can learn from and build on. I could see newsrooms and journalism schools employing improv as a way of teaching engagement and prepping for outreach in communities. Anyone who has done community work knows that it can be messy and tough at times. Practicing for those conversations in advance isn’t a bad idea.

AH: “Practice” is the key word there. We aren’t necessarily conditioned to say “yes, and.” So we need to practice.

Josh Stearns is the director of Journalism and Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He minored in theatre and dabbled in improv a long time ago. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearns.

Amanda Hirsch is the founder and president of Good Things Consulting and author of the Having it Alt blog. She and her husband are the founders of Think Improv. Follow her on Twitter at @amanda_hirsch.