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Lawyers find improv comedy skills help them think fast

Mac Gostow/The People’s Improv Theater

Mac Gostow/The People’s Improv Theater

The law is no joking matter. But comedians may have a few lessons that lawyers can learn.

On Oct. 2, the Washington Improv Theater in Washington, D.C., will host its first “Improv For Attorneys” event. To be held at the theater’s 14th Street location, lawyers will learn how to take the “core competencies” of improvisational comedy — communication, collaboration and creative innovation —  and apply them to the workplace, according to the Facebook event.

“Participants leave better able to give compelling and engaging presentations, persuade, negotiate and innovate, including in high stakes, off-the-cuff situations,” according to a WIT press release.

The free workshop is an extension of WIT@Work, an applied improv training program that uses the techniques of improv comedy to “empower people to work together in exciting and productive ways.” The training sessions teach students through exercises aimed to enhance team building and communication skills and spark creativity and  innovation.

Above all else, WIT@WOrk teaches participants the power of effective listening, both in and outside the workplace.

“It’s very common when talking to someone to start tuning them out and planning what you’re going to say in response while they’re still speaking,” said John Windmueller, WIT@Work training manager. “The idea is that I can use that extra time to prepare… But that doesn’t always make for the best conversation.”

It also doesn’t make for strong scenes on stage. Windmueller added that good improvisers “aren’t like chess players thinking seven moves ahead.” The most engaging, entertaining improv shows are a result of attentive listening between scene partners.

Listening is just as important when discussing legal matters. That’s why one game lawyers can expect to learn on Oct. 2 is “First Word, Last Word.” In this exercise, Windmueller will pair up attorneys and have them start a conversation about something they’re both familiar with, say, the law. The rule is that Attorney A cannot respond until Attorney B has finished speaking.

Here’s the catch: Attorney A’s sentence must begin with the last word that Attorney B said to ensure both participants are actively listening to their scene partner.

“There’s an obvious degree in which being an engaging communicator is connected to trial skills and being a good presenter,” Windmueller said. “But there’s also the fact that attorneys spend an enormous amount of time not in the court, so being a better communicator with their peers and colleagues is important, as well.”

Windmueller would know. Before joining the WIT@Work team four years ago, he earned a Ph. D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, worked as a court-based and community mediator and taught conflict resolution courses at the University of Baltimore. After completing his first round of improv classes, Windmueller began using exercises he learned at WIT in his graduate courses.

“Improv exercises offer some of the clearest and most concrete principles for how to be more effective in communicating, in collaborating in high stakes, off-the-cuff moments,” Windmueller said. “It does it in a way that’s fun, and the fun is also why it works.”

WIT isn’t the only improv theater offering workshops to law firms and other businesses. The Second City in Chicago, which trained big league comedians such as Bill Murray and Tina Fey, has taught “applied improvisation” classes to Twitter, Google and Facebook, to name a few. Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles and New York City teaches “CLE Improv For Lawyers.” During the three-hour course, attorneys learn improv exercises that improve skills on decision making, public speaking and negotiation and earn three CLE credits when all is said and done.

The People’s Improv Theater in New York City offers CLE courses, as well. Founded by actor, writer and comedian Ali Farahnakian in 2002, the PIT opened a second theater in Chapel Hill in 2017 and has been offering corporate training programs since.

“We offer necessary skills to those who already have the technical skills,” Farahnakian said. He added that PIT corporate training workshops are based on the theater’s motto, “Improv Your Life.” In other words, use improv’s core tenets of forward-thinking, creativity and collaboration to better yourself in all areas of life.

The PIT has worked with many big-name companies, including Pinterest, YouTube and Mastercard. But regardless of the company name or size, PIT instructors will sit down with clients to discuss what they hope to achieve through the class. Some say they are struggling to have “courageous conversations,” while others hope to develop stronger team mindsets. PIT instructors will then tailor workshops to each company’s specific needs.

But comedians aren’t the only ones teaching skills to non-theater folks. Two years ago, Richmond actress Wendy Carter was hired as an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University to teach Winning Presentations, a class that provides acting techniques to business students to help improve public speaking and leadership skills.

Charlottesville casting director Erica Arvold offers Performance for Professionals, a class series that applies techniques used in actor training to organizations, businesses and individuals “looking for profound and meaningful development,” according to the website.

At the end of the day, Farahnakian thinks everyone can benefit from taking an improv class at least once in their life.

“I think improv is kind of like working out or taking a walk. You never do it and think, ‘I shouldn’t have done that,’” Farahnakian said. “If the basic [improv techniques] can make you just 1% better, that’s worth it to any organization.”