What Taylor Swift can teach us about Improv for Business
Nice to meet you, where you been?
Ok, I promise I won't just shoehorn in Taylor Swift lyrics willy nilly. But it has been a minute! I think it's important as a teacher to make yourself a student once in a while so I've been taking some time to fill my improv cup by attending workshops, performing in new territory and covering different classes.
The most rewarding of these so far has been teaching an 8 week Intro to Performing Improv course. We're now just over the half way mark and I'm learning so much from my students. However, I never expected a revelation quite like this...
Last week was the first time I let myself be swayed into coming for a drink with my students after class. The week before, Evan (name changed for privacy), a lovely American who is very new to improv, shared with the group that he was about to travel to Germany for a meet-and-greet with Taylor Swift. At the pub he came up to show me a stunning selfie with the pop princess and announced, "she did everything you've been telling us to do!"
Cool, but what's that got to do with your business? This fan travelled to another country and paid to meet his hero for probably only 2 minutes and left feeling not only like it was worth it but with even more respect than he had before. Wouldn't you like to be able to make your clients and colleagues feel like that in just a 2 minute interaction?
One of the tenets of improv is "to make your scene partner look good". Taylor Swift seems to live by the same ethos and in return she has garnered a huge loyal and enthusiastic fanbase.
Evan's main takeaway about why the interaction was so satisfying and why she has such a loyal following was because "she makes you feel special". And after 4 weeks of studying improv with me he was able to pin point how she did it:
1. "She kept eye contact with me the whole time"
Practicing eye contact is a vital part of improv and yes, it takes practice. Try keeping eye contact with someone for just a minute with no words, no phones, no music, no TV, no funny faces and it will feel like an age. Our need to be constantly distracted has hindered our ability to be with ourselves and each other but we crave that intimacy. The kids these days talk a lot about "being seen", well this is a very literal interpretation of that. Something as simple as eye contact can make people feel valued and connected.
2. "She's all about consent"
Apparently she is very clear on determining whether a fan wants a hug or a kiss and how to pose in photographs based on body language and clear vocal confirmation without it seeming awkward. When I started in improv 14 years ago, there were issues with consent on and off-stage but in recent years the improv community has made discussing consent a key part of training.
I also imagine that Swift, like a number of female performers, offer these meet-and-greets so that she can give fans access whilst in an environment that is safe to her. (Hear Nikki Glaser explain this on Marc Maron's WTF Podcast.)
Expressing and respecting boundaries is all a part of the conversation. People are quick to assume that celebrities do this as just a money grab but many who are driven by money would still never consider it and are the reason why we have the phrase "never meet your heroes".
3. "She plays along"
There are countless stories of couples using this opportunity for a surprise proposal or announcement and Taylor is quick off the mark to make the moment as special as possible. She realises she's not the star but the supporting player.
All of her actions are the same techniques improvisers practice to fulfil one of tenets of improv, which is to "make your scene partner look good". Taylor Swift seems to live by the same ethos and in return she garnered a hugely loyal and enthusiastic fanbase.
4. "She listens to us"
There is a theory that Taylor uses these conversations with fans to gauge what she should write about in her music. Whether or not that is true, what an incredible connection to have made with your audience. Her songs about heartbreak, partying and young love seem pretty universal from the outside but all over the world she has fans saying "she wrote that for me!" Why? Because she had a 2 minute conversation with them where they felt understood.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting Swift or her fans are being disingenuous. I'm highlighting how being able to communicate authentically and empathetically is an extremely powerful skill and something that can be developed by studying improv.
5. "She makes good offers"
When Evan met Taylor, she asked "can I take a picture with you?" Of course, he'd want a picture with her but by recognising her status and phrasing the question so they were on the same level she immediately put him at ease. It's that little extra step that makes the interaction memorable.
In improv we work on making positive offers. This means not asking questions or making statements that put the onus on your scene partner. A good offer signals to your scene partner what you are comfortable with and what you think should happen next while not prescribing too much to them.
I used to go to a lot of marketing conferences and the main question I heard was "how do we get Millennials and GenZ to connect with our brand?"
Perhaps being a bit more like Taylor Swift is a good place to start...
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