Tina Fey’s Improv Guide for Female Success In the Office

QUICK PLUG: If you finish this post finding some value in the tips shared, and are also in the greater Boston area, consider attending There’s Something Funny, a conference experience sponsored by The Cronk of Higher Education dedicated to infusing humor and creativity into the work of higher education. If you, like me, believe the future of our field is a joke (HA!), sign up!

In writing my post about how women in comedy are traversing the confidence gap unlike women in many other fields, I hit upon a point that I realized I wanted to explore more fully. For those who didn’t read last week, I’ll bring you up to speed:

Quick speculatory note: when I look over this list of women [in comedy who serve as an example of how the confidence gap can be overcome], as well as others that could fall in the same category, I can’t help but notice that many of them are trained at and excel in improvisational comedy. Improvisational comedy has a key element that forces action: if you don’t do anything, nothing happens. Literally. Further, actors working in a scene together have to support those around them. Otherwise, scenes don’t move.

I’m not convinced that’s the advertised appeal of improv comedy as a training ground for corporate America, but maybe it should be- especially for women. Their voice matters more in these moments than most, because without their contributions, nothing happens. I may come back to this in a future post…

And so, here we are. The merit of improvisational comedy strategy as a means to strengthen workplace dynamics is not a new one. But its particular strength as a means to empower women has been explored less. As I’ve realized from the research I’ve seen about female confidence, they tend to balk due to an understanding of the importance their contributions could have. But improv is a unique medium for its extreme dependence on participant contribution. You can’t just go through the motions in improvisational comedy; to take part is to make it as you go.

Tina Fey recognizes that work’s gonna get messy. She’s also cool with it. IMAGE CREDIT: Esquire

Tina Fey, in her comedic memoir Bossypants, sets forth a number of rules of improvisation that she claims will change your life and reduce belly fat (by her own admission, they don’t actually do that second thing). She is a far more experienced comedic writer than I, so I won’t attempt to build on her writing in that way. Rather, I’ll expand upon it a little bit to explain why it’s especially important for women to follow the advice she provides. Are we ready? Yes? Good? On we go!

First, foremost, and most often referenced: AGREE. Agree and say yes. As Tina explains it,

So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Tina goes on to say, and I’m inclined to agree with her, that this principle doesn’t require that you roll over and say okay to whatever is asked of you. Women get themselves in trouble for that interpretation of “saying yes” a lot. By the same token, it doesn’t always mean that you have to accept the circumstances that you’re in, particularly if they’re unfavorable or detrimental. But you can’t hide from them either. Don’t fall victim to the “if onlys”, just acknowledge where you are and pledge to move forward from there. Has your budget been cut? Are you short-staffed? Do you have a less than ideal relationship with a coworker or a supervisor? Agreeing, in this instance, means accepting that these circumstances are as they are.

Adversarial conditions aren’t the easiest to accept, I’ve learned this firsthand a few times. But once I accepted things for what they were rather than railing against them because I didn’t like what was going on, I was able to work constructively within the narrative that my fellow actors were creating.

Now, the next step: don’t just say yes. Say “Yes, and.” Once you’ve accepted the scene that has been set, or the circumstances you’re in, add your voice to the conversation being created. Tina again:

If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

This is an interesting one. In student affairs, for example, we get presented with situations that look a lot more like crawling into a dog’s mouth than most might imagine. But we get through these odd, crazy, challenging, and ultimately rewarding moments by accepting them and then adding our own spin to them. My key takeaway from this step: be additive. “Yes, and…” is starkly different from “Yes, but…” It’s easy to do the second thing. It’s easy to find our own reasons why a suggestion won’t work, or stop something in its tracks because it doesn’t fit our vision. Saying “and” implies a desire to accept the vision of those around you while making your mark; “but” can be seen as a desire to deny or minimize it. Which one do you want to be responsible for?

Being additive can be difficult for an additional reason: it requires us to find value in our own ideas. That can be hard to do. When you’re new in an office, ill at ease around your coworkers, or without all the information you feel you need to make a decision, that “yes, and…” can be hard to speak up for. What if someone in the group doesn’t like it? What if it’s been tried before and didn’t work? What if they don’t get it when I explain it? To that, the creator of 30 Rock and one-time head writer of SNL says, “It’s your responsibility to contribute […] Your initiations are worthwhile.” Elsewhere in the book, she speaks specifically about not allowing the idea of a less than unanimous reception keep you from bringing forth an idea. The fact of the matter is, if you’re in a role, it’s because someone deemed you qualified and competent to do so. Draw on that confidence, as well as any triumphs you’ve had while in the role, when speaking up. Those ideas should weigh more than the missteps (and we’ll talk about the missteps in a moment) or confidence crises that hold you back. To put it in Tina’s words elsewhere (Kevin G. of Mean Girls), “don’t let the haters stop you from doin’ yo thaaaang.”

IMAGE CREDIT: Cosmopolitan Phillipines

The next one is one that fires me up mightily, so get ready: make statements. This seems like a no-brainer, but stay with Tina and I here. I’ll let her go first:

This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.

Just as we talked about the danger of being the person that doesn’t contribute anything, there is an equal danger here of shifting the burden of creation to the people around you. By asking questions rather than making statements, you are taking away your power to effect change in your environment.

And, for the record, these questions can also come in the form of those snarky comments: “That’ll never work” “why would you think that?” “How does that make us better?” Even if it’s not explicitly phrased in the form of a question, comments like that are questioning the validity of the idea being presented. You may have questions about the execution of an idea, or legitimate concerns about the direction it’s going, but those are different from questions about the motivation. To bring in another perspective on this, consider UCB alum and current Playing House star Lennon Parham’s take on valuing your voice in a given scenario:

If you’ve ever taken an improv class, the whole point of the scene is to make your teammates look good. You support the shit out of whatever anybody on stage is doing. And that’s how people roll in the business too, as far as UCB goes. You hire your people, they show up, and they give 150%.

Know the difference between the two lines of questioning, and do your best to speak accordingly. As Tina puts it, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution.”

Tina adds a second part to this conversation, one that I feel VERY strongly about:

Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements, with your actions and your voice.

Are you an uptalker? Do most of your declarative statements end as though you’re not sure about them? Do you know how that can make you sound? The Atlantic and Slate have covered this at length, and ultimately found that sounding tentative can hurt your case, even/especially if you’re not actually unsure. This is a vocal tic as pervasive as excessive “likes” or “ums,” and potentially more damaging. Please, please pay attention to this in yourself. I was lucky enough to have an attentive supervisor when I worked in radio that drew my attention to that tendency, and I credit him for it often.

Actually, my last point on this came form that same supervisor. Lastly, making statements can apply to how you dress for work. As a more youthful looking employee, I have to be aware of wardrobe decisions that may leave me fielding questions about what year I am or what I’m studying. In many workplaces, there is a way to dress for the role you’re in- part of making a statement is making sure you and your clothing are speaking the same language, conveying the same message.

Chris Fisher, thank you for bringing my voice down and also for telling me I can’t wear pajamas to work because “this isn’t college.” You’re the best 🙂

And finally, we’ve reached her last point: there are no mistakes, only opportunities. This is bigger than just semantics. In Tina’s words:

If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike.

There’s a lot of pressure to be perfect in the office, online, at home, everywhere. This is especially pronounced for women- this Zosia Mamet piece for Glamour is one of my favorite examinations on that concern. But we have to remember, aspiring to be perfect is a lot like aspiring to be a centaur- admirable goal, but it’s also a little weird BECAUSE YOU CAN’T. Missteps in our programs, check-in procedures, lesson plans or presentations feel huge to us, but it takes a lot for those cracks and blips to show. In those moments where you misstep, apologies are really only necessary if they truly affect a person. Typo on a slide? Joke about it, laugh it off, accept it as human, and keep moving. You’d be surprised the number of mistakes that can be solved by doing just that. And yes, someone with anxiety issues is telling you to laugh it off and move forward 🙂

I’m far from the foremost authority on how to best work in your office. You know where you work, the unique quirks that you encounter each day, and the climate of the room you’re playing to. But I do know that reexamining these tips now and again makes me better. I hope that they do the same for you- hey, they worked for Liz Lemon, right?

3 thoughts on “Tina Fey’s Improv Guide for Female Success In the Office

  1. Great read! I’m reading a book now that I was given by my mentor when I graduated that I think you may be interested in. The book is called “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. It’s gives a really cool look into four goals to take on as an individual to help you find your own voice and strength, and ultimately happiness. Definitely worth a read and it’s a pretty short!

  2. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post. As a former improv performer, you hit the nail on the head. So many improv techniques can be utilized to enhance our day-to-day work and interactions with our colleagues. Improv is about starting from an open-minded space, respecting what has been created, and adding something of your own. This is why it’s one of my featured presentations I give.

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