Networking lessons improv has taught me

This expert insists that the key to a powerful presentation lies in finding a balance between extroversion and introversion, between talking passionately and listening fanatically. But you must also learn how to be spontaneous.

The great performance coach Tony Robbins once said, “If you want to get results no one’s getting, you have to do things no one’s doing.”

I took his advice to heart and looked for unusual methods to boost my networking skills. Inhaling blog posts and how-to books wasn’t enough, so I asked my folks in town. An American friend swooned over a guy from San Francisco who had once worked for Cirque de Soleil. She said the man was a creative genius improv teacher who had helped her become a bad-ass communicator.

I was hooked.

But since I didn’t know much about improv, I watched a couple of YouTube videos and saw a bunch of guys and gals acting like young Jim Carrey tripping on illegal substances. I thought, Who are these clowns? Nevertheless, I tried a local two-hour session with my friend in Berlin and my mind was blown.

Below, I reveal three networking lessons I’ve learned from doing improv:

1. Embrace the three-circle strategy

My improv teacher introduced me to a theatre technique that works when you want to connect with an audience, even if it’s just one person. The first circle is the passive behavioral mode: You stand like a tree, absorbing what everyone else says. Picture an introvert, a shy artist who’s a born listener but is too afraid to speak up.

I’ll get to the second circle in a sec.

In the third circle, you exude energy. You walk in and light up the room. Speak with fire and dominate your space. Lots of extrovert self-marketers excel at that. It can be effective, but it also comes across as self-centered and domineering, because there’s no place for your partner-listeners. They feel like they’re getting preached to.

In the second circle lies the magic.

Here, you mix the first with the third.

Say what you want about Donald Trump, but even his arch-nemesis, Bill Maher, the comedian, admits he was a good listener. When Trump speaks, he goes full third-circle. Speaks with vigor and gestures wildly. But when he’s in a private conversation, he only focuses on you and asks you questions, making you feel like you’re the center of the world.

Lesson: Know when to listen with utmost care and when to present yourself with passion. Most people either do the former or latter. Learn to master both. Remember the second circle. Remember the balance.

2. Be a ‘yes’ (wo)man

The improv teacher wanted to break our rigid behavior and introduced us to the “Yes, and…” game. Here, someone offers you a premise and no matter how ridiculous it sounds, you have to accept the invitation and add information in a positive manner.

An example:

A woman during the session came up to me and said,

“Mars, let’s go to Mars with my new spaceship.”

My first reaction was negative. I thought that sentence made no sense. But that was my closed mind speaking. A second later, I accepted the invitation and added information.

“Yes, and we’ll take your mother Jill with us. She’s been a lifelong fan of red planet movies and will be the first grandmother ever to set foot on Mars.”

It was a made-up answer, but the goal was to add information in a positive manner. Despite the simple rules, half the people in the session either added a negative response (“No, we can’t do that”), or didn’t add any new information, or worse, didn’t say anything at all. This showed me how stuck in mud and closed our minds were. A deal breaker when building business relationships.

Lesson: In a business negotiation, we are quick to shut down requests or ideas we don’t agree with. That’s when I encourage you to remember the ‘Yes, and…” game. If someone comes up with a request you can’t deliver or disagree with, think “yes and…” see what happens:

“Do you think you can create a positive corporate logo on a lower budget?”

I may not be able to do it myself, but that doesn’t mean the interaction ends.

“(Yes, and…) I may know some people who can help you with that.”

3. Spontaneity breeds rapport

My improv teacher, in his most polite SoCal style, once said, “Mars, get out of your damn head.”

What he meant was that I constantly focused on giving the best performance. I tried coming up with witty and funny stories in advance. It kicked me out of the moment and cut rapport because I was in my head and not with my partner. Thanks, Mr. Miyagi.

Improv is all about spontaneity.

The teacher said I should concentrate on my partner exclusively, eyeing her body language, focusing on what she said and how she said it.

First-circle behavior which most folks, even pros, do wrong.

If you’re watching the presidential debates in America, you see a lack of spontaneity on both sides of both party debates.

Some candidates sound like robots speaking canned responses, or worse, acting out canned behavior. You watch them deliver their lines with precision and feel awkward, because it’s unnatural. It’s a carefully-scripted setup instead of a genuine conversation. Like you’re dealing with a puppet who cares more about his or her performance than about your needs. Learning to be spontaneous makes you come alive in a dialogue, because you’re in the moment, fully present.

Lesson: I followed the spontaneity advice at my last online entrepreneur event. A speaker talked about building his online travel app from scratch and mentioned his personal development journey, including a trip to a Chinese Shaolin temple where he had trained. After the talk, I approached the entrepreneur thinking I would use my best all-networking style. I wanted to unleash my unusual biz questions, “blah blah…how much did you raise, how did you build connections…” etc.

But since I had focused on his talk and watched his body language open up during the Shaolin part, I tossed the standard approach and asked him what the best part of his one-month temple experience was. Boy, the man’s eyes glowed as he swooned over sparse rice meals with veggies, hours of meditating in the early morning on the mountain and hardcore training discipline that even eight-year-old kids went through. We built instant rapport, exchanged biz cards and parted on a high.

Lessons learned.

While the audience around me was listening with half an ear, looking down and fumbling with their phones like trained monkeys, I tuned out everyone and everything but the speaker.

So, instead of sounding like two pre-scripted marketing bots auto-pitching each other, be spontaneous. You build a genuine connection, which can be the basis of a grrreat biz relationship, or even better, friendship.


Being a good communicator is the alpha and omega of building business relationships. Tony Robbins is right when he says that unusual methods lead to unusual results. Improv has helped me heaps with building deeper connections with potential clients and partners.

A version of this article first appeared on {grow}.

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