There are many advantages to being a trained improv performer, especially in business. There are so many valuable innate skills that are improved through practice – active listening, group mind thinking, quick response, empathy (connecting and relating to others) and observation (reading people), to name a few. The one that I find the most valuable and that I’m best at is observation. Through my many years hosting improv comedy shows I’ve learned how to read and connect with an audience quickly. Both the audience and the other performers are counting on me to create connection between each other as well as an awesome experience. Think about how important this skill is in business – being able to read people to create connection and an awesome experience.
Being able to read people through focused observation is one of my strongest skills that has truly developed over time through practice. We all have the ability to do this and it’s very connected to developing a strong intuition, also an innate skill. When I first noticed how strong this skill had become for me I was almost a little weirded out by it; it felt like I had strange overnight psychic abilities to read minds. There have been times when I almost hated having the skill because it comes with a responsibility to others.
As busy as I am at the “day job” I would never give up performing and directing shows at my theater (Carolina Improv Company) because it’s the best professional development tool for keeping me on my game in the areas of engaging, leading and selling. It’s rare that I get this opportunity these days due to the success of our consulting business.
Recently, the night before Thanksgiving, I directed a show, which is basically being the MC of the show. I instantly connected with a 77 year old man in the front row. His name was Dick. He laughed at everything and nothing, which made me laugh. His affability was my go-to throughout the night; that friendly face that I knew would support every choice I made on stage, even the ones that didn’t work. He was with his family – daughter, grandchildren, cousins. He was clearly the loving and revered patriarch of quite the rowdy bunch.
As directors and performers, we typically connect with audience members by “interviewing” them and then using information they provide as ideas for the improv scenes we create. It’s organic and engaging. It makes people feel special because a part of the show was about them. So, I interviewed Dick and asked him what his favorite Christmas gift of all time had been and he said, “My wife.” And the audience melted at his sentiment. Through observation I knew his wife wasn’t in the audience. His answer stifled me internally. There was no need to ask another question like “where is she?” I knew instantly she had passed away. I could see it in his eyes and my heart sunk. This was clearly a sentimental moment for him as he reflected upon his most precious gift as he sat in the audience with his family on the night before Thanksgiving. I moved on though I could feel the audience wanting to know more. I knew that knowing more would bring them down during a comedy show when so many of them, including me, miss loved ones. We proceeded to do an improvised song about “A Man Named Dick” intertwining details about his life that made everyone laugh, especially Dick.
At the end of the show Dick hugged me and said thank you for the night. He locked his eyes with mine and his eyes filled with tears as he said, “My wife was truly my best gift for 52 years. I lost her four years ago.” And I said, “I know.” I asked him to please come back and laugh as much as possible because his laughter was so infectious. After everyone left I told the performers about this interaction. Many were surprised. They hadn’t picked up on the cue about Dick’s wife. I was grateful for being able to create an experience for Dick while honoring his need to share his pain. Now, I’m not ALWAYS perfect with this intuition thing as I recently mistook a 26 year old woman for a 12 year old boy … thankfully I was able to recover that situation quickly without embarrassing me or her.
To be successful in business you need to be able to read people to create connections and deeper relationships. Re-training your brain to read people will also improve your intuition skills.
Here are my top three tips for Reading People:
- Actively Listen
- Intently Observe
- Identify Behavioral Patterns
People love to talk and love to be heard. Ask one or two questions about a person and then shut up. It’s the fastest way to create trust and connection. It’s also a quick way to learn about a person and form a baseline for their personality patterns.
Listening to vocal cues will also help you read people effectively, whether in person or on the phone. Specifically listen for tone and volume, cadence, word choices, length of responses and accents/dialects. Vocal cues communicate emotion, state of mind, knowledge, points of origin and points of view.
Being an active listener takes practice and commitment to re-train the brain, especially with so many distractions in our daily lives. Almost all improv exercises focus on listening and are great tools to improving this skill that many take for granted.
Similar to active listening, being a keen observer takes practice and commitment. Sit back, watch and learn! There are many resources out there about body language but there are some basic behaviors that will clue you in what people are thinking and feeling. Take notice of how people lean in to (or away from) you, cross their arms and legs or nervously shake or pace. Also notice the distance between between themselves and others, in addition to their sense of touch (hands on others’ shoulders, hugging). In addition to body language cues are facial expressions. Much is communicated through eye contact, smiling, frowning, tearful/tire eyes, lip twitches, clenched/tense jaws, and burrowed brows.
Identify Behavioral Patterns
One of the most important things improv performers learn in the improv comedy world is the importance of patterns and “game of the scene”. Improv scenes have patterns, usually inspired by audience reaction. It’s the cause and effect of doing something that creates a reaction in others and then choosing to repeat or change the action. For example, when a child does something that elicits a laugh from adults that child will typically repeat the action until the laughter stops. Improv performers do the same thing on stage in comedy. Contrastly, if the audience groans at something the performers do they know they need to pull back and try something new. Doing this dance of identifying and establishing patterns can help you determine what makes people tick so that you can better connect with them.
To reiterate, reading people is a practice that results in better relationships and increased revenue. AND it’s fun! It’s guys like Dick who remind me of the importance of human connection and customer experience. Most of us truly want to create that for others. And the moral of the story? Pay attention to Dick!
How can I help you build your business? Want to bounce something off me? Let’s talk! www.TimeWithGina.com
Gina Trimarco Cligrow owns and operates Gina & Company Coaching & Consulting, a business coaching and consulting firm, in addition to Carolina Improv Company, a business training and entertainment company with a 75-seat theater (Uptown Theater) located inside the Myrtle Beach Mall in Myrtle Beach, SC. For more information visit www.GinaAndCompany.com.