How Improv Rules Can Help You Create

“Yes, and” kickstarts good ideas

Sometimes friends ask, “How do you write for other people?”

It’s a good question.

Or they ask: “But how do you know what to write?”

We always start with marketing objectives, communication goals, and a deep dive into audience personas. But sometimes, my friend may pause to wonder something even deeper:

“How can you know what is on someone else’s mind?”

And that is a great question.

Because you can know someone else’s mind—well, partially. But the even bigger and better question about writing together is, “What can we discover together?”

A big part of what we do with our clients is to think together about an issue. It might be a marketing issue. It might be a process issue, and it might be a science issue. Whatever the issue, when we purposely pull back into a larger discussion, we create a safe, creative space. That space suspends the rules of gravity, physics, and even social hierarchies so that we are—for the moment—free to create something entirely new.

A conversation is a creative space that allows ideas to bubble up, ideas neither party thought of before. As writers, we pay close attention to this conversation even as we contribute. The takeaways from these conversations can sometimes appear as a well-lit billboard in the night sky and other times as a little voice that whispers from the subconscious. But we pay careful attention to the billboard and the voices as they appear.

That’s how we write for other people.

And it is a blast.

The Importance of Showing Up

 In her book, Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, Patricia Ryan Madson, who piloted a course in improv at Stanford, talked about “Yes, and” as the engine that drives improvisational comedy.[i] “Yes, and” takes the first idea that presents and starts to build on it. According to Madson:

“Saying yes (and following through with support) prevents you from committing a cardinal sin—blocking.”

Blocking tries to control, which is essentially saying “No.” In contrast, “yes, and” honors the flow of conversation and tries to shape it.

Madson’s book applies to comedy, to our work as writers, and honestly to much of life. We “Yes, and” a lot because ideas take shape as we volley them back and forth—a process we relish. What starts as a quick conversation or a side comment can “Yes, and” its way to a blog post, an op-ed, or a range of products and services. You never know what germs are silently hatching in the ooze of the moment in a conversation. Madson’s book is well worth your time. She makes a case for how Improv applies to so many parts of regular life:

  • The fourth maxim, “start anywhere,” is also a perfect statement for getting a story on paper or into the air between us.
  • The twelfth maxim, “take care of each other,” highlights the generosity of spirit at the core of how we connect and form relationships.
  • One maxim that does not quite work with clients is the second maxim, “don’t prepare.” We’ve found we have much better volleys of conversation when we have done our homework.

The rules of improv comedy give a few guardrails that help conversation keep flowing rather than being controlling and stopped. Flowing conversations so often create something new.


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