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What Improv Taught Me About Being a Better… Manager, Colleague, Strategist

Over the years as I have navigated the world of PR and telling clients’ stories, I’ve been on the lookout for new ideas — and places to find them. For example, I often stop at a magazine stand as I make my way through the airport to buy a magazine or two that I would normally not read. Not only does this expand my knowledge on subjects I don’t know much about (feeding my curiosity), but it helps me come up with cool ideas or story angles that I could apply to something on which I was working.

Recently, I decided take this one step further. In an attempt to exercise the muscle that is my brain, I wanted to do something that would improve my ability to think and react quickly, and (turns out dramatically) challenge my comfort zone. So, I signed up for an improv class. Excited and nervous, I walked into my first class completely unsure of what I was about to experience, or just how far I would be pushed outside of what I consider comfortable.

The result was an incredibly fun, challenging and surprisingly insightful six-week experience. While I went in expecting to improve my ability to think quickly, it was the other things I took away — like how to be a better manager and participant within my company — that surprised and delighted me.

Always “yes, and”

If you’ve ever been to an improv show (or watched Whose Line Is It Anyway?), you might be familiar with this concept. Simply put, in improv, it’s important for the actors to build on ideas, not shoot them down. So, if someone throws out a scene or idea, rather than the other person saying “no, because…” it’s important to say “yes, and…” — and build on the idea. Can you imagine how boring and awkward an improv show would be if all the actors shot down the other actors’ ideas?

Now, imagine yourself in your next team meeting, and someone brings up an idea. Maybe that idea isn’t fully fleshed out or something that you think has wings. Stop for a minute and ask yourself what about that idea has merit, and how you could make it better, take it further or think about it from a slightly different perspective. Not only does “yes, and” get you to better ideas, but it builds the confidence and morale of everyone around you.

Listen completely

If you are like most people, you start thinking of what your response is going to be before the person you are listening to is done talking. While rude and sometimes uncomfortable in day-to-day conversation, in improv doing this could make for some really awkward and disjointed scenes. To try to teach us how to listen better, our instructor had us do a really cool game where we had a conversation — one line at a time — with another person where we had to begin our sentence with the last word of the other person’s sentence. As soon as we started, we realized how hard this habit is to break and how much attention it takes to really listen to what someone is saying.

Doing this might make for some funny looks at your next staff meeting, so maybe it isn’t something you have to do out loud. Rather, practice quietly listening to every word your colleagues say, and work to restrain from talking until they are completely finished with their thought. In doing so, you will look thoughtful, respectful and even smart, as you build on others’ complete ideas.

 Ask yourself: “what’s the worst thing?” 

My comfort zone exists in a “before improv” and “after improv” world, with what I feel comfortable doing today dramatically different than before. I remember the exact moment it changed. Our instructor asked us to get into a circle and proceeded to explain the rules for the game we were going to play. It was called song circle. Simply put, the group chooses a theme — let’s say love — and each person must take turns going into the middle of the circle and singing part of a song that the last person/song inspired. A person remains in the middle — singing — until the next person taps them out.

When we were done, the instructor applauded each of us and said: “Congratulations! You didn’t die.” And, she was right. The absolute worst thing that could have happened to any of us as we stepped into that circle was death. And, funny enough, not even the fear of singing in front of all those people could kill us. Since then, I have realized how true and applicable this is to so many different areas of life. It doesn’t necessarily make the nerves go away, but it sure does put what you’re about to do into perspective. And, that alone, should make doing hard or uncomfortable things just a little bit easier.

The ability to challenge myself in new and uncomfortable ways (and live to tell about it) has inspired me to continue to identify new ideas and concepts that I can apply to every day experiences as well as new ways to expand my brain. Hopefully it will do the same for you.

PR in the Age of Trump

Horn speaker for public relations sign symbol, vintage color - sun with blue sky

For anyone in PR, it’s impossible not to feel the dramatic change currently taking place as the new President launches an attack on the media. (Most recently, he called the media the enemy of the American people.) As a former reporter, someone who loves working with editors, reporters and producers to help them tell their stories — and an avid consumer of news — I cannot help but worry about what this means for the future of our country’s free press. One positive consequence: we have seen a dramatic increase in subscriptions to many of the nation’s top papers (despite Trump’s claims some of these papers are “failing.”)

But this isn’t a post about what we can (and should) be doing to support this fundamental of liberties, regardless of political affiliation. Rather, I want to look at how this new landscape is impacting the public relations industry, and what lessons we should be taking away.

A Changing Landscape

Let’s step back from the current rhetoric for a second, and look at how the industry has evolved over the past several years — pre-President Trump. Many PR professionals will remember the days of sending a press release to the local — or even national — paper and having it covered. New product releases were of interest and got covered without much “selling.” Company CEOs/spokespersons didn’t have to take a stance on an issue to receive coverage for their company or product.

But things have changed.

With the growing number of companies competing for attention (think of the tech space alone — there’s a start-up for everything) and the changing face of media in the digital age, the world of PR has had to change the way it interacts with and thinks about the media*. We must educate our clients that what reporters need today is an expert perspective and point of view on what is happening across an industry or how a new product is going to change the way we work and think. What reporters don’t want or need is a regurgitation of a company’s boilerplate or product descriptions. (*Side note: While I’d like to believe and be able to argue that every PR professional is always thinking about each reporter’s needs and how to help her tell the stories she needs to tell, there are many who have given the profession a bad name by blindly and mindlessly pitching. So, there are exceptions.)

That was two (long) months ago.

Now, the people writing those stories are under attack. Journalism is being threatened. And, as PR professionals, we have an important role to play. After all, we are in a position to help editors, reporters and producers tell their stories. And we can help them find the resources and information they need to write the fullest articles possible that inform and educate their audience. We need to take this job very seriously.

It starts with education

Most clients don’t want to hear that the story they want to tell isn’t going to work — especially with dreams of Wall Street Journal clips filling their quarterly goal sheets. But the reality is, some stories won’t work. It’s up to us to know which stories will, and help our clients better understand what reporters today want and, more importantly, need. It’s strategy and deep knowledge. Intelligence and confidence. Expertise and experience. Our role should be one of consultant and strategist first, implementer second (or third).

A successful PR professional today will have a deep understanding of the current — but constantly evolving — media landscape, including challenges, opportunities and obstacles. Today, more than ever, it is our job to know a reporter’s work: what she writes about, how she writes about it, what components she includes in each story, how she uses expert commentary. Beyond that, it is our job to educate our clients so that we can arm the reporter with what she needs.

We cannot ignore reality

Today’s reality — in the first two months of a new presidency — is one that most of us are not (yet) used to. Everywhere you turn — NPR, CNN, Fox, The New York Times — coverage of the new administration is dominating the headlines. As with any new administration, there are questions about what changes will mean for Americans and what we can expect over the next few years. Unlike previous administrations, there is so much early coverage on the unconventional ways this White House communicates and implements policy. For those outside of government, that makes it hard to get your voice heard.

As I mentioned above, it’s about giving reporters what they need. And, in this new reality, that often will mean an expert perspective on how a policy will affect a certain group of Americans, or what Congress should include in the replacement of the Affordable Care Act. This new reality is likely to leave companies that want to sit on the sidelines and not offer a perspective out of (often coveted) articles.

As PR professionals, it is our job to ask the tough questions and set the stage for our clients. Paint a picture of this new reality and how they fit in. Help them map out what matters to them and how it’s best to reach the audience(s) they need to reach. Is media the right medium? If so, which outlets? What do reporters that reach their audiences need? How can they help those reporters tell their stories?

Reporters have always had a tough job. Their stories have been open to criticism and — now more than in much of history — a new level of skepticism. They seek to make information available to the masses — no matter location, education or political background. As PR professionals, it is our job to help them do this, by helping them find the pieces they need to build each story they have to tell. I have always loved my job, helping tell stories. But now, more than ever, my job has more meaning than ever before. It’s helping to preserve a fundamental piece of our country’s democracy.

And I take that very seriously.

What It Means to be a Strategist

For years, I have called myself a storyteller. Since graduating college, I have found myself in positions where I use a wide variety of communication tactics to reach a goal. Whether that is company alignment following a shift in senior management, increased brand awareness or support for a new program, the way an organization tells a story can greatly impact its success. And I find it mind-blowingly exciting to use words to influence change.

But recently, I realized that “storyteller” isn’t enough. It doesn’t come near to painting a complete picture of the work I do — quite happily and passionately — on behalf of my clients. After all, a story isn’t created out of thin air. Rather, it is carefully crafted and molded. It winds and bends to become what it ultimately becomes, with much thought along the way of what it needs to say and what the audience should walk away with.

Every story needs a strategy.

Imagine you are in charge of the Democratic Party right now — having just lost the presidential election, with a minority in both the House and Senate. You need to not only rally your party for upcoming elections, but figure out a way to overcome the challenges that caused you to lose the election and majority in the first place. How do you go about achieving such a lofty goal? Sure, you could leverage a few people that have significant influence, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but does that expand your base as widely as you need to win in 2018 and 2020? And, if so, what message(s) do you craft that will reach that diverse base? How and when do you deploy those messages?

It requires strategy.

Whether a political party or a private company, it’s critical to step back. To take stock in where you are. Where you want to go. What steps you need to take to get there. To understand the obstacles that can, or will, stand in your way. To ask questions. Where have other companies failed? Where have they succeeded? What is the current landscape? Is it conducive or obstructive to your near and long-term goals?

A strategist asks (a lot of) questions and listens intently to the answers. He hears what people are saying, and more importantly, what they are not. His questions are aimed at uncovering the possibilities, opportunities, challenges and realities that lie ahead. He seeks to draw a picture that reflects those things; because without a clear picture of the present, it’s nearly impossible to create a future. That picture becomes the starting point. The canvas on which the strategy will be built. A beautiful representation of curiosity and knowledge. Research and analysis.

It requires an intense commitment to knowledge and understanding.

With the foundation laid, a strategist gets to work on tactics. Laying the actual groundwork to achieve goals. Defining each step along the way. With an eye focused on the future and feet grounded in the current reality of opportunities and challenges, she builds a framework, a blueprint. She defines metrics and outlines accountability. She addresses challenges and uncertainty. Builds confidence and secures buy-in.

It requires a deep love for — and skills in — communicating.

Surrounded by a solid team, a strategist never settles for the status quo. Always asking questions. Seeking knowledge. Challenging others around her to do the same. Being a strategist is a commitment to curiosity, knowledge, growth, teamwork and evolution — wrapped in organization. A strategist doesn’t fit neatly into one title or role; rather, she may wear many hats and work with different teams or clients. Straddling the line between past, present and future, she is simultaneously focused on yesterday’s lessons and tomorrow’s opportunities.

As a strategist, I love creating and telling stories. It’s one of the many tools in my growing and ever-expanding toolbox. But, every strategy requires different tools, and it’s my passion to figure out which ones will be most effective for each unique opportunity — and, of course, to keep building that toolbox.

The Intersection of Trust, Culture and Communications

Paul Zak recently wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review on building trust within the workplace; HBR’s Curt Nickisch (@CurtNickisch) spoke about the impact of rudeness — as well as Zak’s article –on NPR. Both got me thinking not only about the role of — and achieving — trust, but how the way we interact with each other contributes to the “demise or thrive” of trust within a company.

There is a lot of talk in today’s workplaces about culture. How to create a “successful” culture. How to maintain it as the company grows and evolves. How to hire people that are a cultural fit. For all the talk of culture, it’s ironic just how fragile it can be and how hard it is to get right. I visualize companies walking a tight rope as they try to find the right mix — more than a lack of culture altogether, but not so much that it overshadows the company’s goals and product/service/offering.

As Zak points out, a company’s trustworthiness can determine just how successful not only its culture, but bottom line, ultimately will be. While I recommend reading the article in its entirety, here is a quick snapshot of how Zak recommends managing for trust:

• Recognize excellence
• Induce “challenge stress”
• Give people discretion in how they do their work
• Enable job crafting
• Share information broadly
• Intentionally build relationships
• Facilitate whole-person growth
• Show vulnerability

The good news is that so many companies today recognize the need for many, if not most/all, of these things. With many in the tech sector leading the way, companies understand that people appreciate being able to bring their whole selves to the office and having the freedom to work in the ways that are most effective for them. The bad news is that many others either do not recognize the need…or fail at implementation.

The Role of Effective Communication
One of the things I think this list overlooks or does not delve into deep enough is the need for companies to communicate effectively. Relationship building becomes nearly impossible if two people don’t know how to talk to each other in a way that they both feel heard, are both able to listen and take steps that are mutually beneficial. Likewise, inauthentic vulnerability may work for some, but most will see right through it — which chips away at the very trust you’re trying to build.

People are simultaneously complex and simple, and the best leaders understand that. While people are at their core individuals with nuances and unique personalities, we all fit (relatively, at least) into categories that prescribe how we communicate, interact, feel respected and learn. A good example is introvert vs. extrovert.

You likely work with people that talk over you, don’t talk enough, seem disconnected or are overly pushy and aggressive. The way you interact with each of them determines the success you will have at building a reciprocal, trustworthy relationship. As with any relationship, it’s not something that happens overnight, but requires a commitment from all parties. What’s more, it requires an open mind and willingness to learn and think differently; I argue that this is the part where most relationships and teams fail. [Allison Mooney offers an easy-to-digest approach — and tool to recognize — the categories we each fall into in her book, Pressing the Right Buttons.]

How Communication Can Build Trust
Companies that want to build a culture that reflects their values as well as foster trust need to take stock of how people — from leadership down — interact with one another. If, for example, leadership places importance on transparency for the business, but can be caught in a lie regarding personnel issues, the foundation on which trust is built will be thin. Rather, authentic, personalized communication is necessary for the leadership to demonstrate in order to cultivate trust. Put another way, it takes a commitment to treating the company’s employees as individuals – understanding the way each person communicates, learns, works and operates. Team leaders or managers can create a culture in which each person is heard in his/her own way. That may mean having a separate meeting following a brainstorm if group-think isn’t their thing.

Trust is earned and can be lost easily. Therefore, the way we interact with people — whether it’s in the office or in our personal lives — can dramatically impact how much trust is built. It requires constant work and should never be taken for granted. Successful leaders conduct regular “checks” to make sure their employees feel heard, respected and part of the team. Losing touch can mean more than employee turn-over; it can have a dramatic impact on the bottom line.

The Road to Self Expansion

I have never been one for making big (or even small) resolutions as one year ends and another begins. While statistics show most people don’t keep those resolutions they make as the ball drops (at least for very long), that’s not why I stay away. First of all, I’m terrible at making and keeping some big resolution — whether it’s well thought out or an impulsive, end-of-year obsession. If it’s not part of my routine and something I’m driven to do, I inevitably don’t stick with it. Second, I don’t really believe — at least for myself — that making big, sweeping personal changes (or verbal commitments to) is the way to achieving real, lasting change. And, I’m not sure “change” is what I have ever been looking for anyways. It’s more about tweaks to the status quo, or building on top of — or altering — a foundation already in place. Think self expansion vs. self improvement.

The last time I saw my grandfather alive, he told me to “have fun and enjoy life.” And while his way of doing that for his life is sure to be different than mine, I have always committed to doing just that. For me, it’s curiosity that drives everything I do.

I look at each day and new experience as an opportunity to expand. My brain. My perspective. My abilities. Therefore, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to feed my curiosity and deep desire to always be learning and growing. So, rather than a resolution to lose 10 pounds or save more money, my focus is on building on what I have, where I am and who I am today.

If you’re looking to do the same, here are ways I focus on and commit to expanding:

Reading. I love reading (what better way to expand your brain and perspectives), but with two young children and a full-time job, this can be difficult. To overcome the challenges, I don’t over-commit myself, and make it a digestible — and realistic — part of my routine. Specifically, I add to my to-do list (because that’s the only way I get things done) to read 10 pages. Sometimes I do more. But it gets me in the habit without feeling overwhelming.

Family time. For some people this may not seem like “self expansion,” but for me, there are few things that feed my soul more than my boys. While we tend to spend a lot of time in the same house, it doesn’t always feel like quality time. So we have a family reading night where we read books out loud together, followed by silent reading time for my husband and me. (See how I incorporated two areas?) We also have a family game night where we get to see just who is the most competitive amongst us. It’s something we all look forward to each week and have so much fun doing together.

Travel. I wish I could spend my days traveling and learning about the world and its people. Talk about feeding the soul — traveling to new places as a family. Each month we put money into a separate “travel” account so we are able to make travel a priority. We also spend time talking and learning about new places, and are about to create our travel plan where we list the places we want to explore and in what order. I have also made a list of local adventures so we can explore our local community together.

Staying connected and informed. I firmly believe that it’s important to be educated on the things that are impacting the world around us. To do so, I make NPR (National Public Radio) a huge part of my daily routine. Whether it’s at home, at the office, in the car or at the gym, I find a way to make sure I listen to my favorite programs.

Doing things differently. The brain is a muscle; therefore, it can be “trained” to do things differently. I love to identify the areas in which I believe I can grow, and do things to exercise my brain accordingly. For example, I am currently taking an improv class to help expand my “think-on-your-feet” ability and commitment to “yes, and” rather than “no, because.” In addition, I like the app Brain Yoga, which has exercises that work different parts of your brain.

For many people, self expansion can be so much more achievable than big, sweeping resolutions made once a year – often in response to some nagging unhappiness. If you identify areas in which you want to “expand” and some things you can integrate into your everyday life, it becomes more than achievable; it becomes part of your existence. Because your mind is always focused — even subconsciously — on growing, you are more open to new experiences and opportunities.

Our minds, souls and hearts have endless capacity; wouldn’t it be awesome to feed them with what excites and energizes us, without making it feel like work!?!