What Does an Improvisational Mindset Bring to Communication?

When it comes to communicating well, is it better to follow a script or to improvise? For instance, if you’re giving a speech, should you read or memorize your work word for word or be more off-the-cuff in your delivery?

The answer is both. Excellent communication involves a commitment to both preparation and improvisation. But when it comes to dealing with the thousands of variables at play when at least two human beings meet one another, an improvisational approach is the far more important skill for adapting to change and complexity. It’s why stand-up comedians find that dropping stiff and static material to riff with the audience often brings new life to their work.

It’s also why ChatGPT continues to fail in trying to fit one-size-fits-all outputs to situations where people need to adapt to one another. Omizo and Hart-Davidson find that Generative AI falls short of an ability to adjust to “immediate rhetorical situations and [local] knowledge bases” and has a “difficult time simulating the positioned perspectives that human[s] . . . bring to situations and communicate to audiences through their genre usage.”

As questions about improvisation and adaptation relate so closely to my book, Improv for Democracy: How to Bridge Differences and Develop the Communication and Leadership Skills Our World Needs, recently I was asked how I would define an “improvisational mindset” (vs. other types of mindsets). Or “what does it mean to improvise well” in communication? After all, for many people improv is only associated with “winging it” or being completely off-the-cuff as an approach to life. So, is there a difference between good and bad improv?

At the bottom of this post, you’ll find my updated, working definition to address these questions. But before we get there, let me show you a quick figure and table that provide an important backdrop to my answer.

Several years ago, Suzanne Gagnon, Heather C.Vough, and Robert Nickerson created the great, following visualization for what they called an improvisational approach to “affiliative leadership.” As you can see, in their view great improvisation involves whole body listening, a commitment to supporting others at every opportunity, an openness to multiple perspectives on any issue, and a willingness to share control. From a communication and leadership perspective, bad improv could be considered the opposite of these: not practicing listening well, caring chiefly about oneself at every opportunity, a closedness to other perspectives, and an unwillingness to share control.

Here’s the fundamental difference. The former approach improvises to connect with and adapt to as many diverse others as possible, while the latter improvises in the service of the self (or a contracted and closed group that serves the self).

Let’s go one step further. I’m a fan of the following table that Anil B. Jambekar and Karol I. Pelc created showing the difference between an “improvisational mindset” and a “traditional mindset” in work situations. I won’t go into all the categories but will note how the same premise about openness/closedness to others is at play in differences between a performance orientation that says “No one tells me how I can improve” vs. “Thanks for pointing it out. I didn’t realize how I came across,” or social relationships “limited to [the] immediate environment and with people having similar skills” vs. a “continually expanding network regardless of functional skills and expertise.” This fundamental difference impacts lots of performance and learning variables, from one’s choice to be “mostly adoptive” vs. “creative” or closed vs. open to learning.

Table showing the difference between an improvisational mindset and a traditional mindset

To sum this up, skilled improvisation appears to begin the moment one is open to connecting and adapting in real-time with others. This is likely why those in the world of improv theater have defined improvisation as “a highly-refined system of observing, connecting and responding” with others, with “the honed ability to put all your preparation into practice without getting tangled up by your plans,” and more largely about, “what is important about being human in a community.” This all leads Katzman and O’Connor to write that an improvisational mindset allow us to see the scripted nature of so many parts of our lives while standing ready to “unscript” and “rescript” when that best serves oneself and others.

With that background in mind, here’s my updated, working definition for what improvisation brings to communication. Based on your feedback, I’d love to hear what you think needs taken out, added to, or modified in any way:

Skilled improvisation is a way of communicating and connecting with others at a heightened level, paying attention to and being consciously open to what’s actually happening or emerging in the moment (rather than bringing pre-ordained, fixed interpretations and labels into a situation that brook no change). Improvisers make provisional judgments when decisions need made, while always standing ready to work with multiple standpoints, identities, and futures.

In this way, the ability to say “new choice” (seeing revisability as a virtue, or always keeping open a possibility of making different choices than one is currently making) and “yes, and…” (affirming the reality of others’ offers first and trying to build upon them at every opportunity) are two foundational practices for improvisation.

Different than a “traditional mindset,” an “improvisational bodyset” takes seriously the mind and body, thinking and emotions, ideas and physiology that are always part of human action. Different than strictly following a script in life, improvisation always carries with it the possibility of rescripting to improve, expand, and invite participation in positive, democratic social worlds.