The Benefits of Improv for Government Officials


“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

(The genius professor was right, but perhaps someone should have bought him a comb.)

In order to have effective governance skills, government officials must be able to listen organically, navigate change wisely and be flexible in creative problem solving.

Listening is about really taking in what is said in a proactive and responsive way.

Change is about pattern breaking and learning from moment to moment. To be able to effectively lead, we must be able to creatively use our imaginations.  

Today’s complex governance environment requires public officials to open up to new ideas, gain flexibility in thought, take risks where possible and be willing to work successfully in ambiguous and often uncertain situations.

These are skills that well-trained improvisers gain through improv workshops. Successful public officials and improvisers both have to make in-the-moment decisions, respond creatively to ever-changing information, work to make others on their team look good and see things from many diverse perspectives. They need to create, synthesize and innovate. Public officials need to make relevant and powerful connections with town residents, the press, as well as colleagues with whom they work – and seek out the good of their entire community.

“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality overcomes everything.” – George Lois

Improv-based learning helps government officials break patterns in order to influence, adapt and respond in new ways. It helps those in the public officials’ environment feel comfortable with using their own inventiveness, putting ideas out there, taking more risks and tolerating mistakes. Improv takes us out of our habitual interactions and delivers us back into the moment where more possibilities open up. We let go of controls and the linear/rational-only mindsets that otherwise inhibit our inner creative leadership ability.

By doing the unconventional and the unexpected, we access insights, intuitive thoughts and ideas we would not otherwise experience.

The teacher that I had for improv early on was Del Close, the improv guru who taught a virtual “who’s who” of comedy actors. Close devoted his artistic life and best theoretical thinking to improv. Close’s students included a long list of TV and film comedy greats including John Belushi, Bill Murray, John Candy, Don DePollo, George Wendt, Amy Pohler, Shelly Long and Tina Fey, from Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock.

From Tina Fey’s book, BossyPants:

“The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun!’ and you say, ‘The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!’ then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to ‘respect what your partner has created’ and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

Great improv wisdom, indeed.

Here are the top ten rules of improv that all public officials can benefit from, that I learned from Del Close:

1) Say Yes-and!

For a story to be built, whether it is short form or long form, the players have to agree to the basic situation and set-up. The who, what and where have to be developed for a scene to work.

2) After the “and,” add new information.

An improvised scene can’t move forward or advance unless we add new information. That is why new information is added after the “Yes” of  “Yes-and!”

3) Don’t block.

The opposite of saying “yes-and” is blocking or denial.

4) Avoid questions.

A form of blocking (in its more subtle form) is asking questions. Questions force our partners to fill in the information or do the work. It is a way of avoiding commitment to a choice or a detail. It is playing it safe. However, on more advanced levels, questions can be used to add information or tell your partner the direction to go in.

5) Focus on the here and now.

Another useful rule is to keep the focus on the here and now. A scene is about the people in the scene. The change, the struggle, the win or loss will happen to the characters on the stage. Focus on what is going on right this at this moment.

6) Establish the location.

Good scenes take place somewhere and at sometime. They do not take place on an empty stage. A location can easily be established in one or two lines without breaking the scene.

7) Be specific- provide details.

Details are the lifeblood of moving a scene forward. Each detail provides clues to what is important. Details help provide beat objectives and flesh out characters.

8) Change, change, change!

Improv is about character change. The characters in a scene must experience some type of change for the scene to be interesting. Characters need to go on journeys, be altered by revelations, experience the ramifications of their choices and be moved by emotional moments.

9) For serious and emotional scenes, focus on characters and relationships.

A long-form improv set should contain a variety of scenes. Some scenes will be emotional, some will be tense and some should be funny. The easiest way to make a scene serious is focusing on the relationship of those on the stage (their characters).

10) For humor, commit and make choices to the nth degree or focus on actions/objects.


Joseph Novick is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.



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Kaitlyn Baker

Great post! Here at the GovLoop office we’ve done a few quick improv exercises during meetings and offsites. They’re always fun and a good reminder to stay open-minded and creative. Thanks, Joseph!

Joey Novick

thanks, Kaitlyn. i’d welcome the opportunity to provide an improv workshop for a future conference or meeting! That would be fun. Happy Holidays!