Notes from #SXSWi: Applied Improvisation: Preparing to Be Unprepared #Improv

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.


There were actually three talks about improvision that sounded quite interesting at SXSW. I made it to this short, 15 minute presentation, but not the others. Fortunately, those other two have both had the audio posted online, though I haven’t had a chance to listen yet:

Change Happens: Improv for an Unpredictable World. “…how improv can increase your adaptability”.

Storytelling: From the Bar to the Boardroom. “Using techniques adopted from improv and sketch comedy – you’ll learn how to craft a story that your audience will remember long after you have gone.”


Brad Temple on Applied Improvisation: Preparing to Be Unprepared

Back to this talk, then, which was part of the Future 15 series of short talks. In it, Brad Temple of the Austin Improv Collective discussed the ways in which the principles of improvisional theatre can be applied to everyday life, and work in particular.

He started with a historical example from Xerox, who had been trying to create a full manual for their engineers. They found that the many combinations of possible problems across all their machines were impossible to fully document, it was too huge a task. They recognised that their engineers would have to be able to improvise, but that that was OK.

Some myths about improv, according to Temple.

  • It never fails
  • Only some people can do it
  • Improv is comedy
  • It doesn’t have frameworks or rules

What is true about improv?

  • It’s a process
  • It improves with practice
  • It’s usually collaborative
  • It’s a combination of making do, and letting go

There was, he said, very limited literature on the subject, or particularly good empirical evidence for its use, but he was obviously convinced it was a valuable tool. He did point us towards the work of Mary Crossan (I actually wrote down Mary Cross, but some research tells me Mary Crossan is more likely to be the right person!) who has written on business and improvisation. He also mentioned Viola Spolin, who was influential in improvisational theatre and used games to develop the relevant skills.

So what are the main principles of improvisation?

  • Teamwork, trust and support
  • Failure is not only OK but crucial
  • Making your teammates look good
  • Being in the moment
  • Not premeditating or dwelling on past mistakes
  • Listening and communication, really hearing what people are saying
  • Agreement, and building upon others ideas – “yes, and…” rather than “no, but…”
  • Minimal structures, maximal flexibility

Being such a short talk it was lacking in case studies and details that might have made it a bit clearer how this might work in practice, but still, some interesting ideas, I thought.