Creative Collaboration Through Improv

Friday, 17 February, 2012

During my regular trips to London I often find myself looking for some light entertainment on aweekday night, and have recently attended several nights at The Comedy Store.

Through this I have re-discovered my enjoyment of improvised comedy, which is something takes place twice a week at The Comedy Store.

“The Comedy Store Players” is an established group of improvisers who have been entertaining the masses for the last 26 years. Co-founded by Mike Myers (yes, THAT Mike Myers) and Neil Mullarkey, the others core members include Josie Lawrence, Andy Smart, Paul Merton, Richard Vranch, and Lee Simpson and together they have entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest running comedy show with the same cast.

What I have since discovered from spending several enjoyable evenings watching the “players” is that the success of failure of their performance relies entirely on PURE collaboration. Now I am well aware that “collaboration” is one of those buzzwords that it’s seen as very cool to use and throw into an agile conversation. But I don’t think many people really understand what collaboration really looks like. In this blog post, I’ll share a few things I have learned from the world of Improv so far, and how it can apply to you and your team.

Offers and Blocks – the Core of Collaboration

Improv in its simplest form involves two people in an imaginary scene. As dialogue begins, the “actors” have to build on the question/statement/observation the other actor adds. Neither party can possibly know where the scene is going at any point, but an improvising actors skill lies in the ability to add to the other actors input. At TEDx Bath, Neil Mullarkey states that improvisers look for something they call an “offer”. An offer is a piece of dialogue that the other improviser can build on.

Imagine the following scene – Two people meet in a coffee shop.

 “Can I get you something to drink, sir?” is an offer. This allows the story to unfold and the scene to be created. The other actor has several ways answer to add more to the scene.

Should the actor reply with “No, thanks”.  This is something known in the world of Improv as a block. It’s a statement that doesn’t give the other actor in the scene anything to build on. Had the response been “Yes please, and have you got any of those “special” muffins today?” this would have been an offer.

Great improvisers are able to turn a block into an offer. Given the block “No, thanks” an offer could be made in return, “Thank goodness for that, I’m terrible at making coffee anyway.” This gives the opportunity to explore why this person works in a coffee shop when their coffee making skills are so poor!

This is a technique that I have taught in classes known as “Yes, but” vs. “Yes, and” as a way to try and instil a collaborative culture in my students. Answering with a “yes, and” naturally creates an offer. I am sure we can all think of people in our teams who have a natural “offer” style, but they all an awful lot of people who are natural “blockers”. These people can prevent collaboration from occurring within teams, especially if the other team members cannot covert those blocks into offers, to help the team build on their ideas.

One Word Story-Telling: An Easy Improv Collaboration Game to Try

This is a nice simple game I picked up from watching the Comedy Store Players, which demonstrates those offers and blocks very easily. It’s fun too; you can play it with your friends and families around the dinner table.

Within a small group of people (sitting in a circle), name three story elements. I usually pick a character, household object and a location. The group has to tell a story by only saying one word each, before the next person has a go. There will be offer and blocks galore, and you will spot people who can convert one into the other. Try it with your teams too, it’s good fun!


Due to my own curiosity to learn more about improv and collaboration, I have managed to secure a small one-day workshop with Neil Mullarkey, co-founder of the Comedy Store Players. Neil’s workshop teaches a simple framework to help foster a creative and collaborative environment in your teams. As a bonus, this workshop will be held at the famous Comedy Store in London, on 21st June 2012.

If you have read this far in my blog, you will be the first to hear about this unique event, so if you are interested in joining me at the workshop please leave your email address in the comments sections below and I will send you an invite. Limited spaces will be available.

Reference: Neil Mullarkey @ TEDx Bath