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How improv can improve events – and save us from the robots

Comedy and corporate event planning might not seem the most likely of bedfellows.

But the comedy techniques of improvisation – or improv, as it’s better known – can help planners no end.

Improv veteran Neil Mullarkey is a founding member of the Comedy Store Players and has worked with comedy favourites Mike Myers, Nick Hancock, Punt and Dennis and many more. And he says that while improv might be most famously used in the world of comedy, its application in the corporate world can be just as valuable.

“Creativity, leadership and teamwork are the pillars of improv,” he says. “It’s fun as well, there isn’t enough fun at work. We have wellbeing charts, but is anybody saying “Have you had enough laughter at work today?”. It’s a great way of dealing with problems.

Neil Mullarkey

Neil Mullarkey

“Improv isn’t just making things up, it’s using your ability and experience to notice what’s there and making choices on how to put ingredients together. When you try to show off you look like a fool. The real experts are very generous, they make everybody look good.”

Improv leapt into the national consciousness with the Channel 4 show Whose Line Is It Anyway, on which Mullarkey was a regular, something he likes to draw on in his training sessions for corporate clients including Barclays, Google and Unilever.

“I’ve often done a thing where I get volunteers, teach them some improv games and we do a show called Whose Firm Is It Anyway? And we adapt those skills of working, creating and listening together. It’s wonderful to see colleagues up there on stage being great.

“You get Dave from accounts up there doing a sketch, doing all the in-jokes – and it becomes an aspirational thing. You feel you own it and there’s a sense of having done this together. Plus the end product might be better.”

Mullarkey does a lot of leadership training – and with good reason.

“At its best, leadership is an improv skill – what’s right for the situation, team or person? There are so many improv applications for leadership, teams and creativity.

“My currency is how we talk to one another. It’s funny and fun. Often I feel as if I’ve done nothing more than allow people to laugh together for a few hours. But if you can allow them to realise skills they weren’t aware they had, even better.”

And while it may seem daunting to put yourself into a high-pressure situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen, Mullarkey insists that this approach will result in better results.

“In improv, if you have a plan going into it of what you’re going to say that may be great in theory, but the real planning has to go on virtually every day. By not knowing the answer we may hit upon a better answer. You’ve got to be open to not knowing. We don’t know what the script is.”

Mullarkey is also convinced that the march of technology will result in improv skills becoming more and more important in the workplace.

“What is the tech telling us?” he asks. “With AI we’ve got to be more digital and more analogue at the same time. In the future when robots and AI can do all the automated things, improve is going to be even more important. Creativity is a people skill. The moment you ask AI “is the answer A or B?” they can answer, but no robot is saying “That’s the wrong question!”.

“The great breakthroughs have often come when people change things completely. Playing with an idea leads to a breakthrough. That’s improv on an invention level.

“On a people skill level, how obvious is it that if I get on board with you you’re much more likely to work and share resources? That if you listen with your brain and heart that you will become a better team? There’s a lot of blind alleys, but we know we’ll get somewhere. That’s what improv is.

“Improv marks us out from the robots. We still need people to laugh and share and trust and believe so those skills are not going to go away. So far I haven’t come across a funny robot…”