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How Improv Made Its Way into Corporate America

While it's hard to imagine a buttoned-up CEO playing classic improv games, improvisational workshops are becoming fashionable in corporate America.

Mike Bonifer teaches an improv workshop in Los Angeles. All photos by the author

Clint Schaff and his team stood in a circle chanting "bunny bunny." They giggled, self-consciously, while another man, corporate consultant Mike Bonifer, told them to pay attention to one another. "Look into one another's eyes," he said between the chants.

This giggling circle was comprised of employees from DARE, the LA-based advertising agency, which calls blue-chip mega-corporations like Procter & Gamble a client. They're theoretically supposed to let loose, be unusual in the hunt for trends. But what they're not supposed to do is look stupid, which is exactly how they appeared at the moment.


Later, they were asked to "invoke" their own company. They proffered some dull adjectives—"alien, unexpected, quixotic, vibrant, youthful, hip, bold, authentic"—the usual buzzwords. Then they blew it out into the abstract. Parkour, freedom, "no choice but bold," Bonifer called out. They'd improvised their way into a slogan fit for an advertising agency. They looked pleased. Bonifer was an effective corporate consultant.

Bonifer didn't invent these exercises out of whole cloth. He's an improv teacher, and he's been leading the advertising execs in the classic improv warm-up games. First, bunny bunny. And then invocation, wherein an object is, in turn, described, personified, exalted, then deified, to explore its various facets and popular interpretations. It can be done with anything: a comb, a shoe, or in this case, an advertising collective in Southern California's Silicon Beach tech hub.

Traditionally, invocation picks apart the mundane to find answers to the universal question, "what is true?" But in seminars like Bonifer's—which have increasingly gained in popularity in modern corporate strategizing—instead of finding some kind of truth in the human condition, invocation is used to find an answer to a business's universal question, one Bonifer states explicitly: "What's most likely to return an investment?"

Improv has long been a classic art form, in that the career end game for practitioners has usually been teaching classes in that art form. To be sure, scores of improvisers have found fame in ancillary showbiz professions—writing, acting, directing. But from when educator Viola Spolin devised the first modern improvisation games in the 1920s, to the current highly developed long-form UCB/Second City/iO renaissance, making a living with improv has always been a tough go.


However, improv has steadily gained in popularity, especially among millennials. And even if they move out of comedy and into white-collar work, they carry with them the cognitive and organizational techniques of improvisation.

Chris Sams, a Bay Area improvisers who's been teaching corporations to "yes-and" since 2004 (he counts Google, Facebook, Cisco, eBay, and Dropbox as clients), cites the millennial-stacked tech industry as leading the charge. "I've found that the more a leader within the organization has done improv before, the more likely a company or division within the company is likely to embrace improv." As millennials age into higher and higher position of power, improv theory will continue to shape corporate thinking.

Improv is getting to be less of a hard sell to the Fortune 500. Considering over 10,000 people will take an improv class this year (with the vast majority being under 30), the odds are getting better and better that a future CEO will have done their time in the improv trenches.

By selling improv theory to big business, Bonifer and his corporate consultant peers have found another option for ardent improv practitioners, and a very lucrative one at that. With consulting, improvisers can make a mint performing the art they love.

Well, sort of. As Bonifer asserted at the seminar, improvisational consulting is about using the lessons of improv—listening, world-building, being selfless—to get everyone on the team on the same page. But then, to use that to build a brand narrative, and ultimately make sure that, in his words, "brands and customers' stories connect."


It's a popular idea in advertising. As Forbes asserted back in 2013, "Stories are the perfect catalyst to building brand loyalty and brand value."

After word association spitballing, Bonifer asked the ad team a classic question: What purpose do stories serve? While an advertising agency's answer to that question should always be "to sell a product," they were speaking as people. So they offered other answers: "story teaches," "story explains," "story explores." Bonifer offered his own definition: Stories give context to information, and stories help make sense of the world.

Turning a slide on the PowerPoint, Bonifer pointed at a picture of Shrek. "Without story, Shrek is just data," he said.

Mike Bonifer of bigSTORY, which teaches improvisational skills to corporations

Mike Bonifer's career is an unusual one. In 1982, Bonifer was responsible for co-writing the wonderfully bizarre Disney short film Computers are People Too! After leaving, he went into the tech world, and saw how high-level players assembled their own brand narratives.

Around 2000, he started taking improv classes around LA. Coincidentally, this was when improv first made its inroads into the corporate world, mainly with its classic teamwork-building exercises. By 2012 Duke, UCLA, MIT, and Stanford's business schools were all offering improv classes.

Bonifer said to sell corporate America improv, they had to rebrand. "We call it 'improvisation,' not improv," Bonifer told me. "They don't want to be painted with the comedy brush. Like, 'Oh, they're bringing the clowns in over there at advertising. They're doing comedy.'"


Bonifer told me that improvisation skills start influencing business by rewiring how they approach risk. Not throwing everything against the wall, but finding a methodology.

"'Structured vulnerability' is what we call it," he explained. "No businessman in his right mind is just going to wing it. I believe in structure. It gives you the parameters of play."

The term "play" especially is telling. It's lifted straight from Improv 101. But in this sense, it's not "play" in the joyous sense. It's play in service of a point.

"The point is there are numbers that people have to hit," Bonifer said. "The CEO has promised Wall Street. The head of sales has promised the CEO. And those numbers are the lifeblood of the organization. The point is it's not the only thing that's going to happen. The growth doesn't come from successive linear objectives, but all the other opportunities that crop up along the way. Improvisation allows for serendipity."

Improvisation, in this sense, takes all the tenets of modern improv and places them into the corporate world with new language. One framework on another. Improvisers become businessmen, the relationship becomes the deal, and play becomes the profit motive. And as the popularity of branded content has proven time and time again, story unites the two.

After a round of tried-and-true improv exercise like zip-zap-zop, Bonifer told us another story about brands using improvisation for serendipity. When the Chilean miner disaster of 2010 happened, Oakley improvised. They supplied every miner with special sunglasses that, upon exiting the mine, would help the miners adjust to outside light. Every single Chilean miner came out of the mine in Oakleys. From the stunt, the brand netted $41 million in "earned media." For Oakley, that's a damn good story.


Bonifer saw a bigger picture than using improv exercises to get executives to "yes/and" each other. Improvisation could influence a company's entire identity. In the case of an advertising firm, it could influence how effectively they tell stories, and thus how deeply imbedded into the public consciousness those stories could be.

Bonifer asked the group to start thinking about where stories originate. For a brand, it starts at the data, or "big data," to use the fashionable term for the vast terabyte sea of information marketing companies have on the public. Call it a suggestion from the audience.

Actually, that's exactly what Bonifer calls big data. In his book GameChangers, he explains: "The suggestions you get—in the form of market research and other types of feedback—become the basis for building your market and your brand." And thus, your brand's stories.

Bonifer is teaching corporations that preconceived goals are out. What's in is the process of creation—and it starts with an invocation grown from that audience suggestion, without a stated, linear, "on message" end point. "Get out of repetitive storytelling and into co-creation with the market, co-creation with customers" Bonifer said.

The Bay Area improv consultant Sams echoed this sentiment. "The brand is not just how we want it to be perceived; it is jointly constructed by how our audience interprets it based on their own experiences. This conversation takes place in large part on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), though it's not limited to that realm. I guess the lesson here is that companies need to get better at being co-creators of their brand, learning how and when to share control (the dance of both taking and ceding control) in order to create a richer, inclusive, and personally-relevant story."


How will this type of thinking influence thinking on advertising? Consider the brand stories of yesteryear. Joe Camel was one-dimensional—he was cool. The next Joe Camel will be more Shrek-like, more complex. A flawed character: surprising, sometimes infuriating, human. An endearing brand everyone can root for.

Near the end of the seminar, Bonifer tells the advertising execs a story about a story. There was a society who had buried toxic waste in a series of containers. Problem was, the containers would break down in 10,000 years and the waste would seep into the ground, poisoning it. The society struggled to figure out how to transmit the warning to the future. What if, in ten millennia, language changes? How would they warn their descendants?

They devised a way to pass the information down: They would breed a blue cat to put near the site, and they would create stories that the blue cats symbolized "danger." And the story of the dangerous blue cats would outlast them all.

Maybe through improv, brands can let go enough and get creative enough to do the same. Create branded stories that outlast entire civilizations. Maybe 10,000 years from now, long after the brand is dead, people will be inspired by great stories to buy old bottles of Coke, and they won't even know why.

Thumbnail photo by Flickr user Improv Boston.

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