Communicating better online using online improvisation classes

Between March and October 2020, we’ve delivered around 580 online improvisation classes and in so doing, we’ve become one of the world’s foremost providers of online improvisation courses, classes and experiences.

We have also had a big impact on people’s online communication skills. Here we take a look at how we did it, where we’re at now, and what matters the most when it comes to online communication.

The journey from traditional to online improv training

The Maydays are globally-renowned for their improvisation workshops and performances. The team have headlined improv festivals around the world, and topped the bill across Europe, Scandinavia and in the US. All of this work had been live and face-to-face – long assumed to be the only way to make it happen.

As the first Covid lockdown hit us in March, we began to take the first steps to transitioning online. We moved all of our drop-in classes and formal courses to a virtual delivery model and deepened an already-existing partnership with The Nursery Theatre in London.  We are of course ready to resume face to face improv classes and workshops as soon as it is safe to do so, and with the news that a vaccine is one step closer to being delivered, we are already gearing up for this.  Check our website for the lates updates on this.

We quickly realised that whatever regular improvisation represents to our followers in their regular lives, online improvisation meets an over-lapping but also slightly different need in people’s online lives. Like everyone else, we’ve adjusted as people have withdrawn into their more virtual worlds.

What stays the same, and is as welcome as ever, is improv’s ability to:

  • Get people out of fixed ways of thinking and relating
  • Help people to relax and take themselves less seriously
  • Make people feel more comfortable outside of comfort zones
  • Enable themselves and others to be more creative, spontaneous, agile and collaborative in a safe, reciprocal space.

What’s different now, is that improv online, like all other forms of live online interaction and development, needs to be able to cope with all the shortcomings of the digital medium, such as:

  • The lack of the primary elements of communication (words, tone, body language)
  • Poor video and audio that can be misconstrued easily, whether that’s through misreading physical cues, eye contact, misinterpreting pauses and hesitations, confusing poor connectivity with lack of seriousness, lack of focus, etc.
  • how, specifically you should deal with the issues, emotions, judgements and the quality of outputs from online collaboration.
  • What can we offer organisations looking to improve online communication skills?

When you attend a session with The Maydays online, it’s still improv. It’s what we do best, and it’s where we add value. All the transferable skills which make improv a great catalyst to improved communication skills are available in the online alternatives. Indeed it makes sense that the very best way to hone online communication and presentation skills is to be working in that medium.

Improv is still as holistic as ever. We play (compassionately) with minds and draw people towards a more confident, more assured state of mind, through trust, laughter and the disarming nature of doing fun stuff. That we are doing this online right now therefore builds confidence for effective communication in the online space, which seems to be what organisations are after.

We can give any session an emphasis, challenge or support people with specific skills or issues, but the more we can be left to do our improv thing, the better. We’re experts in communication. We are the leaders when it comes to improv. We’re good with people. You don’t need to overspecify it too much. You can just wheel us out.

Improving skills whilst being distracted elsewhere

We’ll address some of the biggest challenges around live online communication whilst throwing people ridiculous, curve-ball things to do, so they can’t help but relax, laugh, share and be themselves. The result will be more self-confidence, and a healthy disregard for the technology scaffolding the exchanges. In other words, people will focus back on people so that you can go back to creating more value out of meetings, presentations and company communications.

This is typical of how we work holistically, but let’s look at some of the specific issues our organisational partners tell us they’re facing.

Communicating verbally, picking up cues, body language, etc.

Zoom meetings have wrought havoc on our ability to pick up on body language and the energy and atmosphere in a room. In our online improv classes, we play with really simple elements and discover how this affects the quality of communication, for example:

  • what background distractions are happening, on and off camera
  • where people are looking, on the screen or at the webcam
  • how close up or far away people are
  • the effect of communication lags and echos
  • what happens when people interrupt each other
  • what happens when you try to pre-empt someone, or finish each other’s sentences
  • how to level out introversion and extroversion
  • how to signpost clearly and assign roles

The limitations aren’t going to change any time soon, so we help participants to work out how best to adapt. 

The importance of role and status

In our sessions we play a lot with status, e.g. high and low status, to undermine the importance that can be placed on role and hierarchical place. At the best of times, hierarchy, status and power can corrupt the value-add potential of meetings and collaboration. Online, it can further stifle comment, feedback and contribution, and diminishes outcomes.

When people are improvising scenes and scenarios that are set up for them, they can play a different role, which is liberating and creates a release from the pressure of being online.

We experiment with different ways of communicating to see what’s effective and move people to greater levels of authenticity. We let people work out what their actual reaction is, and we see where that leads them.

What do you do when the cat and the kid runs in mid-critical point in a formal meeting? You’ve almost certainly seen the clip where Professor Robert Kelly is interrupted during a BBC News Interview by his two children during a live broadcast.

How do you feel when you are obviously perched on the corner of your bed balancing a laptop on your knees, whilst your American counterpart is sitting behind an fancy oak desk in a leader Wingback chair, which is most certainly in their luxury home office or library?

Improv talks to this because of Yes and. It’s the very tenet of accepting whatever your interlocutor has thrown at you. By playing with a host of different situations, the real life version will lose all its intensity.

A musical improv class online with fancy dress

Engagement and interactivity

We’ve all seen it. People showing up with mics and cameras off. Suddenly a meeting turns into a webinar. What you’d hoped would be a productive collaborative meeting to move things on turns into one person monologuing and everyone else thinking they’re listening to the radio.

Successfully leading an online meeting takes significantly more energy and technique than an in-house one.

To get the engagement and interaction when everyone is in their own bubble at the end of a scratchy Zoom connection, the person leading the meeting needs clear strategies to overcome:

  • Zoom fatigue
  • Distraction
  • Disempowerment
  • Apathy
  • Overwhelm

We provide strategies through our own best-practice mastery of the session, and how we set up the different exercises. We look at:

  • Levels of interactivity
  • Textured exercises which stimulate the senses
  • Assertiveness
  • Role allocation
  • Online etiquette
  • Attentiveness and listening skills 

Public persona

You mentioned the need to “reinvent public personas”. This is interesting.

Whilst companies might want to focus on “How do I present myself in the way that is conducive to our brand?” there may be a counter-argument for “How can I be more me, show my vulnerability so people can empathise and relate to me?”

The performative expectation of Zoom is such that we all feel the need to present a picture of on-brand professionalism whilst simultaneously coaxing the cat out from under the kitchen table, and quickly shoving a half-eaten bowl of cereal out of shot.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a big deal, and it intersects with other huge issues in the world, including BLM and other equality issues, world political instability, Brexit,… so we’d all be forgiven for being a bit shaky at times.

In our online improv sessions we acknowledge that Zoom calls from home have massively blurred the public-private line between work and home personas. We trigger situations which cause everyone to relax and accept each other for everything they are.

It’s liberating, it stops the stilted awkwardness of keeping up appearances, and leads to something really rich and rewarding.

Decompression

In normal life, there is time to transition between meetings. Whether that’s popping to the bathroom, taking a cab to a different location, grabbing a coffee or just standing outside in the fresh air for five minutes of TikTok.

Lockdown, and the tight scheduling of meetings can leave little time to decompress. Your people might spend the first half of a meeting thinking about their last Zoom, and he second half worrying about the next one.

This means that decompression needs to happen within the meeting. We look at approaches to create space for decompression so everyone can relax into the matter at hand. 

Diversity

It is far more likely to engage with people from different continents and backgrounds online than it was face-to face.  This can easily catch people unawares.

We look at tone, and voice, and work out what’s important in international scenarios. How do we connect with someone from a different culture, with a different accent, who looks different, ensuring we’re not succumbing to unconscious bias?

We look at the risk of a cascade effect of losing physical and psychological connection online and how to overcome it.

The duration of online improv sessions

What is really interesting is how long our classes need to be. Typically we’ll want an online session to be 2 to 2½ hours long.

Two hours for a Zoom meeting can seem never-ending, but the same time spent in an online improv class often feels too short. That’s because we really do all have to plough through the awkwardness of the situation.

As expert facilitators, we know not to worry about how this feels at first. From hundreds of live online improv sessions we’ve delivered, we know that it can take up to an hour to accept the reality of the screen and process it more naturally. Once you’ve been through that process, every subsequent meeting is substantially easier.

It’s typical for participants to start by wondering how it’s ever going to work, and finish wishing it would never end. 

Online improv class formats

We are currently delivering

  • 6-week courses, comprising weekly classes of 2 or 2.5 hours per session
    Including musical improv, beginners short-form improv
  • Electives, which are one-off Masterclass sessions of 2.5 hours
    Including self-expression, diversity, mindfulness
  • Panels & Social Discussions, showcases and socials
  • Intensives
    5-nights in a row, with 2 or 2½ hours each night

Participants

We naturally have a lot of participants from various businesses in London & Brighton (our two home towns),  but also across the UK, Europe, North and South America and worldwide. Some people are pure, full-time improvisers, but the vast majority have other day jobs.

Other benefits

People enjoy what we do. Pure moments of joy right now are a gift in themselves. We offer a bit of escapism, connection, humanity and a chance to disconnect from the rest of reality for a couple of hours.

At the organisational development level, by providing an online improv session to your people, you’re providing a fun way to improve everyone’s online communication skills, but you’re also, more subliminally, giving something back to your people, energising them and making them smile, and restoring a sense of togetherness.

If you’d like to find out how we can help you and your organisation to improve their online communication skills through the medium of improvisation training, please get in touch or join us for a drop-in.

Corporate Drop-ins, Open drop-in & Musical drop-in

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