Use Tina Fey’s Rules for Improv to Work Better

Tina Fey holding a microphone

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the water slide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”
–Tina Fey

Comedians don’t get any respect. Those of us not as comedically inclined as, say, Jerry Seinfeld, often think it’s just an innate gift they have that allows them to make us laugh until it hurts.

The truth, though, is that comedy is not pretty. It’s the result of years of work. Take Tina Fey. She’s a comedian; screenwriter; TV star; film star; New York Times bestselling author; winner of multiple Emmy, Golden Globe, SAG, and Writers Guild awards; and the second-best Sarah Palin (after Sarah Palin) in the world.

She’s got talent, sure, but also a hell of a lot of grit. Tina Fey’s secret? According to Tina Fey: “Bitches get stuff done.”

Bossypants

Tina Fey holding a copy of her book Bossypants

Bossypants, Fey’s bestseller, covers a lot of Fey’s life, and brilliantly. Here, sample away:

  • If you retain nothing else, always remember the most important rule of beauty, which is: Who cares?
  • Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.
  • To say I’m an overrated troll, when you have never even seen me guard a bridge, is patently unfair.
  • Lesson learned? When people say, “You really, really must” do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver the baby during labor.” When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.
  • In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.

Throughout the book, one part stands out for those of us in business — Fey’s discussion of improv.

Improv is all about adapting to the moment and advancing the scene. When it’s done well, there’s a flow and a wholeness that make it hard to believe it’s not scripted. But there’s an unconscious intelligence at work.

Same with business.

You can plan all you want but once you’re deep in the doing, you need to be able to adapt in the moment, while still advancing the project.

Fey’s “four rules for improv” also apply to business.

Rule 1: Say “Yes”

When Fey wrote this first rule, she meant it to be about building a scene by agreeing with whatever the other actor says. Disagreeing with the other improviser will kill your scene. If your scene partner says “Freeze! I’ve got a gun!” you don’t say, “That’s only your finger!” You reply in a way that affirms it.

Working Better Lesson #1: Respect What Others Create

At work, the analogue is that not everything has to be a turf war. Even if you don’t agree with what someone says, you can affirm the experience behind it. This doesn’t mean you need to agree with everything, but rather just respect other ideas and work with them.

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Rule 2: Say “Yes, And … “

If an improv scene starts with, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you block it with something like, “Not really,” you kill the scene. Or at least injure it severely.

But, if you answer with, “What did you expect? We’re in hell” then there’s something built for the next line.

You’re giving your scene partner a foothold to continue climbing.

Do the same thing with your coworkers.

If you’re in a project-planning meeting and someone makes themselves vulnerable with a bold suggestion, jump in and amplify it. See where it goes without worrying about the result just yet. (If you’re working for a company that stifles that kind of collaboration, get out fast. The world needs your talents.)

Saying “Yes, and …” applies to our own productivity systems, too.

Too often we find methods for productivity or working better and try our best to follow those to a T. The productivity method that worked for someone will most likely not fit you perfectly. Take what you need, add your own ideas, and make it better.

Rule 3: Make Statements

Once you’re full swing into an improv scene, you try not to ask too many questions, which puts a burden on your scene partners. Instead, make statements. Endow them with characteristics, motivations, relationships, locations. Suddenly, the scene takes on a richness.

At work, you have permission to make your own answers. It’s easy to sit at your desk and ask, “Does my boss expect me to work till midnight to finish this?” or “Why was my coworker such a jerk in this email?”

But there’s a victimhood implied in these questions. Try thinking in statements. Then express yourself to the people in question. “Help me understand the best way to prioritize my work” or “By the tone of your email, I’m feeling that you’re angry with me and I wanted to check it out.”

Closeup of Tina Fey

Rule 4: There Are No Mistakes, Only Opportunities

As an improv scene progresses and you decide that you’re driving a car and the other actor thinks you’re dancing, guess what? You’re dancing now. Maybe it’s the new “steering wheel” dance and it’s sweeping the nation and this is the big dance contest.

At work, stuff happens. It’s how you roll with it that matters. A problem in your day is a great way to derail a productive streak with anger and stress, but when you keep an attitude of adaptation, many problems will solve themselves — or lead you off in interesting new directions.

Wrap-Up

Tina Fey had to learn how to stay productive and get things done on deadline mainly because of her work on SNL. When a show is done weekly there’s no time for fooling around with work. There’s no such thing as being a day late when a show airs live at the same time every week — you get it done.

And keep in mind, as Fey said, “You can’t control things by being nervous about it.”

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