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Morgan Smith

Improv for Attorneys: Theater-Based Skills for More Confidence, Quick Thinking and Creative Problem-Solving

I recently looked utterly ridiculous on stage in front of an audience of several dozen people. In the midst of an improv exercise called “Yes, let’s!” someone shouted, “Let’s climb a mountain!” On stage with no props, I reached skyward and lifted my legs to mime rock climbing. Then someone else shouted, “Let’s wash the dishes!” and I switched to acting as though I were standing in front a sink while scrubbing and rinsing.

You’re probably wondering what on earth this has to do with being a trial lawyer. I wondered at first, too, until I began to realize how effective these theater-based exercises can be in promoting characteristics that help attorneys and other professionals achieve success, including:

  • confidence
  • quick and innovative thinking
  • nimble and nuanced responses
  • creative troubleshooting
  • careful listening
  • the ability to recover from mistakes.

This post shares some of the main ideas and exercises I learned in this fun and thought-provoking workshop.

Dan Klein

It was held during an alumni weekend at The Thacher School in Ojai, California, and taught by my high school classmate Dan Klein. Dan is a professional improviser and coach for Stand and Deliver, which works with clients—including many executives at Fortune 500 companies—to improve leadership, communication and problem-solving. This particular workshop focused on “collaborative creativity” to help us become better listeners and work more collaboratively.

Collaboration—that is, being supportive and cooperative—is essential for any litigator who works on a team while trying a case. Our adversarial judicial system tends to erode that quality, so I appreciated the lesson on how to work more effectively with rather than against colleagues.

Here are some of the exercises we did and points that Dan made:

“Yes, and …”

Pair up with someone and have that person suggest an idea or something to do. No matter how dumb or crazy you think the idea is, say, “yes, and…” and add on to their idea with another suggestion. Your partner then has to say, “yes, and then we could [fill in the blank].” The idea is to counter our tendency to automatically say “no” when someone suggests a different way of doing something, as well as our tendency to say, “yes, but …” “Yes, but …” acts as an indirect way of saying no and cutting down another person’s position.

“Rather than shout down the other person’s ideas, go with it,” said Dan. “It may lead you to a more creative, nuanced response or solution to the task at hand. You might not get there directly—it may take two or three turns around unworkable ideas—but then you may arrive at an idea that you can use, which you didn’t previously see.”

Circus Bow

Dan told us that trapeze artists in the circus have a tradition of recovering from their falls by proudly throwing up their arms, holding their chin high and saying, “ta da!” Instead of feeling embarrassed by falling, they do the opposite: They make a grand gesture of pride. He then had us get on stage and do a fast-paced improv skit with one other person. Not surprisingly, everyone hit a point where they became tongue-tied or awkward and consequently messed up the skit. Instead of giving in to the tendency to apologize or curse oneself when that happens, the person had to exclaim, “ta da!” and take a bow.

It’s amazing how this act of physically owning up to and accepting a mistake enhances confidence and the ability to move on. Dan says the exercise is not about saying it’s okay to make a major mistake when the stakes are high; rather, it’s about how to respond when you do make a mistake.

“If your mindset is, ‘Oh no, I failed,’ then that will be self-fulfilling, whereas if your attitude is, ‘Oh boy, what’s the opportunity here?’ then our opportunity for success following that mistake will go up dramatically,” he explained. The ta-da exercise “reduces stress in the face of risk. You’ll take more risks and have more success along the way.”

Word-at-a-Time Story

In another exercise, a partner and I created a string of sentences word by word. I’d say one word, she’d say the next, I’d say the next, and on and on. It takes an extraordinary amount of concentration and careful listening—and provokes a lot of laughter.

The purpose is to enhance listening skills and to think about what is being said at the moment rather than letting your mind jump ahead and plan what you’re going to say, which in turn makes you focus more on what you’re saying than on listening to others. “Our ability to think ahead linguistically gets in the way of our ability to listen fully,” said Dan. This exercise is especially useful—and difficult—for people who are verbally adept and accustomed to dominating conversations (sound like any attorneys you know?).

“Yes, let’s!”

The exercise I described in this post’s opening is a very physical one aimed at rekindling the childlike and imaginative parts of ourselves that we lose touch with in adulthood. A bunch of us got on stage and had to act out whatever someone suggested; e.g., “Let’s go ice skating!” The people on stage who tapped into their imaginations and enthusiastically acted out whatever odd thing was suggested ended up being the most successful in terms of audience approval.

Dan noted that a few kids (including mine) who participated in this exercise had a much easier time with it than adults. They bounded onto stage and jumped right into the acting, whereas we grown-ups were tentative at first. “For adults, this is a completely different way of being,” Dan said.

I felt a bit awkward at first—but then, when I let myself go and have fun with it, I found the experience quite liberating. It took me out of my comfort zone and made me feel more at ease with looking silly, which in turn enhances confidence in public. It also recharged my creative streak. And who doesn’t have some of their best ideas while in a creative, enthusiastic mode?

If we could carry the mindset that these exercises cultivate into the workplace, then we might find ourselves more adaptable, more creative, and more capable of handling surprising or uncomfortable situations—something that could come in handy for any attorney who’s in the midst of presenting a case.

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