Second City's Second Act

Improvisational acting isn't just for sketch comedy and theater performers -- it has plenty of benefits for corporate America. Employees not only learn to speak and emote better during presentations, but the training enhances leadership presence and the ability to think on their feet.

Thursday, July 1, 2010
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Ryan Cheng's audience couldn't have been more rude.

Delivering a talk to a small group of colleagues inside a Motorola conference room in Chicago recently, one person continually interrupted him with questions. Two others talked amongst themselves. Another checked his cell phone, then began sending text messages. Someone else repeatedly asked Cheng to speak up.

A 26-year-old staff auditor with Motorola, Cheng did his best amidst all the distractions. He politely tried to answer the interrupting questions. He spoke louder. He attempted to ignore the side conversation -- though he seemed genuinely perplexed when an audience member asked him to turn up the heat because the room was too cold.

No matter how difficult his next presentation is (auditors typically update upper management on the company's finances about once every seven weeks), he certainly won't have the same distractions he did that day.

That's because the group was being rude intentionally, part of an improvisational exercise to help Cheng -- and 15 of his co-workers -- work on their presentation skills. This particular exercise was designed to help them deal with a talkative, inattentive or impolite audience.

Enter stage left: presentation experts Bumper Carroll and Robyn Scott, who offered some tips on presenting to a rude audience.

Someone rattling off a text message during your talk? They probably have so much familiarity with the topic that they're bored. So engage them: Ask them if they can help you convey the topic to others.

Audience members talking during your presentation? Most likely, they're not being rude, but something in your material sparked their conversation. Engage them to find out what piqued their interest.

Above all, say Carroll and Scott, corporate audiences are much like those attending a play or live performance -- they probably aren't rooting for their presenters to fail; they want them to succeed.

Carroll and Scott spent that day teaching the auditors some of the finer points about talking in front of an audience, as well as helping them get over their nervousness when presenting -- during a week-long training session that began on May 10.

Carroll and Scott are not HR gurus and haven't written books on climbing the corporate ladder or delivering ace presentations to top brass. In fact, their jobs aren't found in corporate America at all.

They're actors from The Second City, an improv/comedy group based in Chicago that's been doing plays, sketch comedy and musicals for more than 50 years. Its alumni include such well-known comedic actors as Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Joan Rivers, and it's perhaps best known as a launching pad to Saturday Night Live for actors Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Tina Fey and plenty of others.

Carroll, in fact, does voiceovers for commercials, while Scott had a small part in last summer's Johnny Depp movie, Public Enemies, and plays the mom in a series of commercials for the fast-food chain Sonic.

On the surface, improv actors and multinational corporations make strange bedfellows. Sure, companies might hire a group such as The Second City to perform some sketch comedy for entertainment purposes (they'll be performing at the HR Technology® Conference in September), but its unique brand of training -- involving many of the same exercises used to train budding actors -- has been well-received by companies, says Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Communications, the organization's training wing.

"We found that all the soft skills you need to be successful in business have a lot to do with the work that we do here at Second City ... ," he says. "Not only is it relevant to business, but it's a really fun way to build skills and learn."

The Second City has been taking its actors out of the theater and into the corporate workplace for years, but has kicked the division into high gear since 2003 when the organization developed a curriculum of business-specific courses utilizing improvisation and role playing, says Yorton. Topics include presentation skills, executive presence, ethics, compliance, innovation and sales training, and can come in the form of in-person training sessions, training videos or intranet-based programs.

"All the programs we do are completely interactive and participatory but they're grounded in fundamental improv principles, things like taking care of your scene partner, affirming and building ideas, listening skills, [and] the ability to think on your feet and work well as an ensemble," he says. "And making it funny helps us win over the skeptics in the audience."

The Second City is not the only theater group to use humor and improv to train corporate workers. The Groundlings, a Los Angeles-based theater group (also an SNL springboard) does corporate training, as does Brave New Workshop, a theater group in Minneapolis.

For anyone who's sat through a boring corporate training session -- perhaps a mind-numbing lecture with no audience participation -- the injection of humor, movement and improv games is often welcome.

Just ask David Kudla, a shy, 26-year-old senior auditor at Motorola who also participated alongside Cheng in the Second City training sessions.

"A lot of the trainings we do feel scripted and they're not particularly interactive, so they're just not very engaging," says Kudla. "This one was interactive whether you liked it or not, which I thought was a good thing because it forces you to become more comfortable."

Proponents of theater training -- such as Ken Adelman, vice president of Movers and Shakespeares, an Arlington, Va.-based organization that trains companies using the words of the Bard -- say it can help employees not only speak and emote better during presentations, but also enhance their leadership presence and help them think on their feet.

"You have to really look like a leader ... that counts for a lot. [People have] a lot more confidence in people who look and act like a leader," says Adelman.

Michael Useem, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia, uses Movers and Shakespeares, as well as the interactive training group, ImprovEdge, as supplementary presenters in his MBA courses.

"Everything from lighting to your stage presence is part of the bigger picture of what it means to communicate," says Useem. "Theater sharpens your understanding of how to present ideas in an unforgettable way."

He also cites improv's ability to help people deal with difficult or uncomfortable situations at work or while presenting to a group.

"The ability to pick up on a tough moment in a corporate setting ... and keep your composure, work with what's thrown at you and stay on message, that's the [benefit] of improv theater ...," he says, "and can help in unscripted moments in the private sector."

The only fallback to such training is that employees may see it as just a day of fun -- but not get the message amidst the laughs.

"You have to work very hard throughout [the program] to show how the training bears on their work experience," Useem says. "You have to make the connection very explicit ... because if it's forgotten, these events can backfire ... . [At Wharton], we forced ourselves to be very disciplined about making that connection or people will think it's a waste of time."

"Everyone Will Go"

To some executives, the idea of a high-potential employee standing at the front of a conference room talking about the KFC Double Down might seem like frivolous fun. But in Motorola's training session with The Second City, it proved to be very worthwhile.

As if she were an expert on the topic, the speaker explained that the fast-food sandwich features two pieces of fried chicken as buns enclosing cheese, sauce and bacon. After about 15 seconds, someone in the audience shouted "fashion," and the speaker immediately switched gears to talk about models, shoes and fashion shows.

Another topic came just 15 seconds later.

The idea, of course, was not for Motorola auditors to brush up on fast food or the latest clothing, but to see how well they can present to a group without even knowing the topic beforehand.

During the exercise, Scott and Carroll didn't let anyone's shyness stop them from performing, chanting, "Everyone will go! Everyone will go!" in an effort to break their reticence.

In all, each speaker spent about two minutes at the front of the room, discussing roughly 10 topics -- but little did they know that Scott and Carroll were taking detailed notes.

After everyone took their turn -- speaking about topics as random as "Delilah's [a bar in Chicago]" "shoes" and "the 1997 New York Yankees" -- the actors-turned facilitators spent a few minutes critiquing their presentations.

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For 26-year-old staff auditor Lonnie Woods, Carroll and Scott told him he should take his hands out of his pockets while addressing the group.

Grabbing one hand, then the other, Scott said, "People get hung up with what to do with these." Just keep them at the side, she advised, even though it's a little uncomfortable.

During his talk, Robert Kosciuk, 26, had a mean case of "dancy feet," said Scott, meaning that Kosciuk would involuntarily shuffle his feet while presenting, rather than walking with purpose.

Nat Waters, 23, addressed the group with his hands on his hips and, while that "displayed confidence," said Scott, the "Superman pose," as she called it, can be distracting and even come off a little defensive. Waters also had a slight nervous twitch in his foot.

"Really? You're kidding!" said Waters, who seemed shocked to hear that news.

But without time to prepare and no idea of the topic they would be discussing, was it really fair that their presentation skills were critiqued?

It sure is, say Carroll and Scott. The exercise showed the speakers in their natural state. Sure, they look more polished when they present to Motorola executives, but seeing them speaking naturally allows the trainers to identify certain nuances they might otherwise miss.

"A lot of you might say, 'This isn't a real presentation,' but this is where you're most natural," Carroll told the group.

"Our intention is not to make clones or automatons that do the same presentation," said Carroll. "We want to enhance the good things, identify strengths and find out what you can improve."

"Hardly Nervous"

Later in the day, Carroll and Scott gave everyone in the group a pen, paper and about 10 minutes in which to craft a two-minute talk on something they feel passionate about. In the same "everyone will go" manner, each participant spoke, one-by-one, to the group.

Woods moved his hands meaningfully during his talk and did not let them slip into his pockets once; Kosciuk's "dancy feet" were still and Waters lost his superhero pose, but still unknowingly shook his foot, something that again stunned him. (He vows to break the habit.)

David Kudla -- who was so nervous during the first round of presentations that he waited to go last -- also had a much better second round. Before, he spoke with a quiet, reserved voice, but the second time around, he delivered his talk with loads of energy.

"That brought a different level of dynamism," said an enthusiastic Carroll. "Work on getting a balance of the two things we saw today: The first talk was too staid and the second had lots of energy -- put them together and you will get a grounded, thoughtful presence."

After the training, Kudla says, he now understands what presentation mistakes he was making all along; his nerves, on the other hand, are "kind of a natural thing, regardless of who the audience is." Now, he says, he'll at least be able to hide it better.

Teri Valentine, Motorola's chief audit executive, called the training with The Second City a success. During public-speaking exercises over the next few days of Motorola's training week, she was stunned to see how the one-day class affected the 16 auditors.

"People were engaged with their audience, they were able to ensure that the audience was paying attention and understanding. They weren't just rattling through prepared remarks; they were actually engaging the audience -- and they weren't thrown when people asked a question. I saw hardly any nervousness."

It sure beat the presentation training from a few years ago, says Valentine, when the group was videotaped so each participant could critique themselves.

"It was pretty dry, and it made everyone super-nervous," says Valentine, noting that the anxiety often left the speaker doing worse during the taping. "They don't see themselves in their normal state. I have not been happy with the outcome of that training. Maybe, for some people, it scarred them for life."

After facilitating the Second City session, Scott said she was happy to see the group break down their nervousness -- something that many hoped to work on during the program.

"At the beginning of the day, people were a little reserved, a little hesitant and what's great about it is that they called it out. They were saying, 'I'm nervous, I want to get over my anxiety ...' " said Scott. "Toward the end of the first half of the day, we really saw people breaking out of their shells and not just becoming more comfortable with one another, but becoming more comfortable with themselves and identifying their own styles. I thought it was really successful."

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