There are people who prefer to say ‘yes’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘no’. Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.

– Keith Johnstone

“Making it up as you go along.” “Ad-libbing.” People generally think of improvisation (also known as improv or impro) as a comedy act or theater performance, not too useful in real life, that only a lucky few have the ability to do.

This is wrong! One academy says that “Improvisation is really an example of heightened communication, relying on an actor’s ability to engage completely with their fellow performers as well their own character.” Improv does rely on unscripted performance and response, but it’s a learnable and widely applicable skill.


Why improvisation is useful

It’s easy to see why improvisation is useful in creative endeavors, such as theater, music, or comedy. Less well known is that applied improvisation is a powerful skill that can be used in communications, leadership, and other real-life domains. There are at least four major benefits of applied improvisation:

  1. Enhanced communication, collaboration, and problem-solving. Improvisation skills have low overlap with most people’s existing skill sets in these areas.
  2. Improved relationships. Improvisation is optimistic and co-operative, and is an effective way of working through disagreements.
  3. Coming up with helpful responses immediately is useful in many situations.[1]
  4. Rapid learning. Improvisation demands that we act promptly. Learning is sped up when we have a faster tempo of decisions and actions.

We’ll be able to react confidently and sensibly to any situation, whether it’s a soirée with complete strangers, an airplane emergency landing, or a major public speech.



In order to benefit from the approach described here, we will need to be able to:

Additionally, improvisation will be slightly easier for people who are high in agreeableness, but this effect is small. Anyone can improvise!


How to improvise

A key plank of improv is the “Yes, And” mindset. With this mindset, we accept our partner’s suggestions and expand on them to construct a scene. For example, our partner pretends to be carrying a heavy barrel; we can mime helping them carry the barrel, or pretend to be a traffic director showing them where to put it. On the other hand, a “No” mindset or a “Yes, But” mindset is based around critically evaluating their suggestions and denying them or qualifying them. This will shut down conversations quickly, as in the following example:

Emma: In China and India, there are 70 million more men than women. That could pose a very big risk to society, as the men who can’t find partners will embrace socially regressive stances to prove their manhood.

Cornelius: I don’t think that’s a likely outcome, but go on. (This is a “No” reply.)

Emma: Uh, well, okay. I think we urgently need ways to deal with this problem, by reversing the cultural preference for sons and finding ways to pacify the excess men.

Cornelius: Wouldn’t that result in horrible policies, like the government giving sex robots to men? That’s so creepy. (This is a “Yes, but” reply.)

Emma: What? I didn’t say anything like that at all. What is your problem?

With a “Yes, and” mindset, this conversation could have been much more productive:

Emma: In China and India, there are 70 million more men than women. That could pose a very big risk to society, as the men who can’t find partners will embrace socially regressive stances to prove their manhood.

Cornelius: Yes, and we need to find ways to deal with this problem! (A “Yes, and” reply.)

Emma: Exactly! We urgently need ways to deal with this problem, by reversing the cultural preference for sons and finding ways to pacify the excess men.

Cornelius: Furthermore, we should think about the ways in which this will affect society in the future, and the policy constraints on the set of possible actions. (Another “Yes, and” reply.)

Emma: Cornelius, you understand me so well. I don’t know how you do it!

We need to put this critical mindset aside for a moment, and not care about whether something is right or makes sense. Improv uses the framework of “blocking and accepting” to manage this. One person makes an offer, and the other person either “blocks” by denying or resisting the offer, or “accepts” by going along with it.

Novice improvisers tend to block each other and compete to make clever offers. Seen this way, blocking is a form of aggression, as it shuts down the other person’s ideas. The aggression is a response to being scared: accepting offers is tantamount to giving up control and following the other person’s lead.[2] A big part of improv is helping people overcome this fear.

Here are some examples of improvisation examples from Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre that attack this problem from different angles:

  • Stop thinking of imagination as something we can do well or badly. This leads to self-censorship of ideas for being too “unoriginal”. In order to be creative, we relax our mind and free it from self-imposed constraints by not insisting on ideas being “original” or “good”. The most imaginative thoughts are the most obvious and unoriginal ones![3]
  • Imagine yourself walking backwards. You can see where you have come from, but you can’t see what will happen in the future. This is the heart of improvisation – the story can go anywhere, and your mission is to balance the threads of the past. Re-incorporating previous information into the story creates a much richer conversation.
  • Something to try out with a friend: one person tells a story for thirty seconds, with as much disconnected detail as they can think of. Then, the other person finishes the story by connecting the details. This way, the skills of idea generation and narrative structuring are quickly learned.


Why most people are bad at improvising

Now that we’ve seen how to improvise, we also know why most people don’t do it well: the two main obstacles are fear and doubt.

Improvisation requires vulnerability – we need to be able to reveal ourselves to others in order to improvise well.  Fear stops us from doing so, as we are afraid of being seen as weird. This fear is the same fear that paralyzes many people when they have to give a public speech.

The other reason is doubt: improvisation seems difficult and mysterious. People think there is a “correct” way to improvise, and a “correct” output we should create, when in fact there is no such thing. There are certainly techniques that we can learn, but they are guidelines, not rules.

In addition to being a very useful life skill in itself, learning improvisation also gives us the courage to overcome our fear and doubt!



By overcoming our fears, we can comfortably adopt a “Yes, And” mindset when appropriate, and learn to accept other people’s offers. This, in turn, encourages people to be more favorably disposed towards us. We’ll be able to communicate and collaborate more effectively and spontaneously, and thereby improve our relationships. Finally, improv heightens our senses since it demands focused attention to others. Let’s look for suitable real-world situations where we can apply the skill of improvisation!


[1] The Elephant in the Brain proposes that we all want to show off our “backpack” of tools. The wider variety of tools that we can display, the more prestige we obtain, and the more useful we are as potential allies. The ability to improvise lets us construct a wide variety of tools on the spot.
[2] As Johnstone says: “The motto of scared improvisers is ‘when in doubt, say “NO”.’ We use this in life as a way of blocking action. Then we go to the theatre, and at all points where we would say ‘No’ in life, we want to see the actors yield, and say ‘Yes’. […] In life most of us are high-skilled at suppressing action. All the improvisation teacher has to do is reverse this skill and he creates very ‘gifted’ improvisers.”
Everyone wants to see people yield and say “yes”! But because of fear, most people prefer to block. Those who yield are ‘charming’ people who are much more liked and persuasive. Applying an accepting and yielding mindset to life will create more enjoyment and large social benefits.
[3] We think of imagination as another thing that we can do well or badly: “Imagination is as effortless as perception, unless we think it might be ‘wrong’, which is what our education encourages us to believe. Then we experience ourselves as ‘imagining’, as ‘thinking up an idea’, but what we’re really doing is faking up the sort of imagination we think we ought to have.”
But somewhat counter-intuitively, the most imaginative thoughts are the most obvious and original ones: “Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some original idea because they want to be thought clever. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts.”

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