Teaching Communication with Melissa Bowler of the Providence Improv Guild

Post by
Phil Strazzulla
November 9, 2017

Why is communication so important?

Strong communication is key to a strong culture. That's why we asked Melissa Bowler to share her experiences with improv comedy and how these lessons can relate back to how we work together and collaborate.

A little about Melissa:

Melissa Bowler

Melissa Bowler is the Executive Director of the Providence Improv Guild, a comedy school and performance space located in Providence, Rhode Island. She has been teaching communication, team work, and empathy through improv comedy workshops since 2009. She's also mom to a little boy named Luc.

Can you describe a bit about what improv is for the uninitiated?

Improv is basically sketch comedy written, directed, and acted in the moment. It's the art of making theater with a group of people all collaborating towards a common goal of entertaining and connecting with the audience.

How do you communicate verbally and non-verbally on stage with your collaborators?

When you improvise together, you have to treat everything your scene partner does as if it is the most perfect thing they could have done. Every line of dialogue, every facial expression, every movement is reacted to as if that was the exact thing that the scene needed. Because of this, we, as improvisers, aim to use everything as useful and valuable information. In this way, communication is so much more about the receiving end.

Why is this important in the context of the corporate world and the interview process in particular?

The biggest takeaway I have is to take it all in. It's not just what a person answers it's also how they answer. Do they ask a clarifying question or jump right in? Do they think it through before they speak or think it through out loud? Neither of these options are better or worse per se. They are, however, telling about the type of communicator the person is. In my line of work, I much prefer a person who jumps right in and talks it through out loud. Some work cultures may be more suited to folks who clarify and give more thoughtful answers. Granted, folks tend to be very nervous during interviews so allow for a bit more fluster and caution in answers.

Where do you see the breakdowns in communication? Why do these happen?

Breakdowns happen when we assume what the person is trying to say instead of listening to what they actually say. We forget to ask questions when something strikes us as out of place or unexpected and instead we most often assume what a person meant and cast judgement from there. I think these happen because we're all trying to be more efficient and we all are secretly hoping to meet a person who thinks exactly like we do. This is never going to happen but it's the dream to meet them and work with them so sometimes we pretend that that's what's happening and function as such.

Any funny stories that resulted when you were out of sync?

A mess without communication

So many that nothing really sticks out. In improv, being out of sync can be what makes the scenes so unexpected. It can range from being a wonderful gift to each other, and then, through clarification we discover these hidden depths of comedy. Sometimes it's the reason a scene goes 'off the rails.' The turning point is contingent on how it's handled. If it's talked about and sorted through it can be a gift. If it's ignored and 'powered through' it can have dire consequences. Improv functions just like life.

How can someone strengthen their communication skills? Any specific exercises?

  • Step 1: Know and accept you'll never be perfect and you'll always have to look for ways to improve.
  • Step 2: Take an improv class.
  • Step 3: Ask for feedback. If you say something and it causes confusion, anger, frustration or any unexpected emotion, ask what they heard. Pro tip-this is a great way to diffuse intimate relationship issues. Most of the time they stem from you or your partner misunderstanding something one of you said.
  • Step 4: Try to work more 'yes, and' into your life. Try to accept and build upon others' ideas. I believe that most folks don't bring ideas out unless they truly believe they are good. They may realize a fault simply by saying the idea out loud or they may need to bounce it around a bit to find the best parts. Ideas that are met with no's or 'yes, but' make most folks dig in their heels and lose respect for the person they're presenting to.
  • Step 5: Know that listening is hard, for everyone. If you tuned out- say it. Ask a person to repeat what they said. I have so much more respect for a person who says, 'sorry I missed that, my thoughts were elsewhere, what did you say?' This tells me that they actually want to hear what I'm saying. Also, forgive people who misheard you or tuned you out. It's human, it's usually not personal, and the best way to move forward is to clarify and refocus.

Melissa has shown us that internal communication is vital, just as communicating what your organization is all about with the rest of the world is important to building your employer brand. If you'd like to discover ways to apply these tools and find great employees who communicate well, check out our Career Sites today!