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How to think faster, better on your feet

  • Story Highlights
  • Doing improvisations are easy and fun ways to learn to think fast on your feet
  • Skill helps you avoid awkward silences, move forward, make others look good
  • Trusting your instincts and practicing are key to making it work
  • Some local acting schools, community centers offer classes in improv
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Real Simple

(Real Simple) -- Life coach Gail Blanke went to acting school to learn to improvise in any situation. Turns out the tricks that actors use on stage can help you score a date, land a job -- or just make any conversation more engaging

If you repeat what someone else says and then start next phrase with 'and' that comment can become conversation.

If you repeat what someone else says and then start next phrase with 'and' that comment can become conversation.

There's no getting around it. We live in an unscripted world. You can rehearse in front of a mirror till the cows come home -- for that job interview, for that meeting where you're expected to speak, for the moment when you finally walk up to that very attractive guy at the gym and introduce yourself. But the minute there's another person involved, the script goes out the window. If you mean to make an impression, you have to be able to think on your feet, hurl yourself into the moment, and improvise.

How? Well, obviously, some people are simply naturals. To help the rest of us develop some techniques, I turned to the professionals.

An actor friend had told me about the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), a highly respected training center for comic improv in New York City, so I called up the academic supervisor, Joe Wengert, and asked if I could sit in on one of his classes. Luckily, he said yes. And saying yes, it turns out, is nothing less than the heart and soul of improv. But more on that in a minute. Real Simple: When friends behave badly

Here's the first thing I learned in that class: Advancing the dialogue -- or "moving the scene forward," as they say in the acting world -- is what improvising is all about. It's the same deal if you are onstage, in a boardroom, or trying to get your point across at a PTA meeting. "Dead air" is verboten in acting, and it doesn't work too well in life, either. You either take the conversation into new territory or you kill it.

So to make better connections with people and to get what you want -- whether it's a promotion at work, a new relationship, or simply a delightful conversation -- you have to be ready to "move the scene forward." I watched the 14 men and women in that improv class invent hilarious, fast-moving dialogue on the spur of the moment with words like "beach," "reunion," or (my favorite) "eating contest" as their only direction. And, boy, did they take the scenes to some pretty wild places. Still, I actually believed them.

What's their secret? Interestingly, all the improv actors I spoke to pretty much agreed that the following three principles are at the heart of their art. And, without exception, they use them to propel conversations forward in their real lives, too.

1. The "yes...and" technique

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How it works: Say two actors are given the words "blueberry pie" with which to create a scene. It might go:

Actor 1: "I made a blueberry pie."

Actor 2: "Yes, you made a blueberry pie. And you remember the last time we had blueberry pie?"

Actor 1: "Yes, I remember. We took a picnic into the woods, and that's when you said you wanted to join a nudist colony."

You see what's happening? Suddenly there's a story; suddenly there's a direction and a purpose. Using the simple words "yes...and" moves the scene into new territory, and that's where new possibilities occur.

How to make it work for you: So let's say it's Monday and you're at the gym and that very attractive guy says, "It was a beautiful weekend." If all you say is "Yes, it was great," that ends the conversation right there. But if you say, "Yes, it was great. And I really made the most of it. I went to a concert in the park and brought my yellow Lab. He snatched a sandwich right out of the hands of some poor woman having a picnic. But we had fun."

Now you've got something. You can follow up with "Do you like dogs?" or "Have you ever been to a concert in the park?" And, bingo, the next thing you know, you're on your way to another concert in the park with none other than that very attractive guy. (Maybe minus the dog.)

The "yes...and" technique gives you the chance to acknowledge what's been said and then move the conversation to a new place, where you just might discover something -- or someone -- delightful.

Using "yes...and" can also help you direct a conversation to where you want it to go. Here's an example: Your son says, "I hate my math teacher." Instead of saying, "Well, that's just silly" or, distractedly, "Aha," and ending the conversation right there, you could say, "Yes, you hate your math teacher. And that reminds me of how much you hated your history teacher -- until you started to love her. Remember? I mean, things can change, right?"

I recently tried "yes...and" at a meeting of the board of governors of the small golf club in Connecticut that I belong to. One board member gravely announced some disturbing news: "The porta-potty is quite close to the women's tee on the seventh hole, and some of the women have complained about the, uh, odor and noise." There was silence while we all pondered this momentous issue. "Yes," I said, leaping in. "It's close all right. And we should move it to the men's tee." It got a laugh, but more important, new suggestions were offered, the problem was resolved, and we moved on. I mean, I definitely "forwarded the scene." Real Simple: Easy ways to exit awkward situations

2. Go with your gut

How it works: Improv actors don't think too much before they speak. And, in the experience of those I spoke to, the first, intuitive thought is usually the best anyway. "There's no time to rationalize, no time to weigh the pros and cons of your response," says Mike Ross, a 34-year-old lawyer and a student at the UCB.

Or as Yogi Berra put it: "You can't think and hit at the same time."

How to make it work for you: Try to break the habit of second-guessing yourself before you speak. While you're busy thinking up the "right" response, that awkward silence is settling in.

Imagine that you're in a job interview. Of course you've memorized your list of "strengths" and come up with a good answer for the inevitable question about your "weaknesses" and all the reasons why you'd be perfect in this position. But your prospective boss doesn't ask you about any of that. Instead, she says, "So what in the world would make you want to join a crazy company like this, where people work around the clock and just about everything changes every day?"

Rather than struggling to come up with the perfect scripted response by saying, "Well, uh, you ask an interesting question. Let's see, I, uh...," listen to the voice inside your head. Trust it. And start speaking without critiquing yourself (which is when those ums and uhs jump in). Maybe you'll say, "Well, why do you do it?" which isn't perfect, but it's just fine. Or "Well, if you love what you're doing, I guess it doesn't matter, does it?" Or maybe you'll blurt out something like "What? Are you all nuts?" In which case, you'll probably break the ice and get a laugh.

The key is to trust your instinct. And the key to that is to practice, so when it comes to the crunch, you know your intuition isn't going to pull any lousy tricks on you.

Try these exercises to hone your intuitive responses.

• "Watch Desperate Housewives or 30 Rock and assume you are one of the characters," suggests Mike. "Respond out loud to whatever is going on with whatever comes into your head. Be outrageous, be crazy, but keep the scene going." Will you put your foot in your mouth sometimes? Absolutely. In improv, you go on as if that's what you meant to do. If you act like you meant it, the audience will buy it. That works in real life, too.

• Play speed improv games with friends at a dinner party or on the beach. Throw out a word or a phrase, like "shower curtain," "police precinct," or "family reunion." Tell them about the "yes...and" technique and take turns creating a fast-talking scene where you have to think on the fly. Real Simple: How to handle sticky situations

3. Make everyone else in your group look good.

How it works: Here's what you learn in improv: You're nothing without somebody else. There's nothing to improvise without someone to improvise with. The more you trust others to be your props, the more you invite them to shine, the stronger you get.

Sammy Buck, a 39-year-old UCB student and a writer said he was astounded at how much satisfaction he feels when playing a supporting role in a scene. "In improv, I've learned I'm as happy to help move things forward as I am to take the lead," he says. "Maybe even happier."

How to make it work for you: In any situation, practice acknowledging the others in your group (the "yes") and always make an effort to promote their ideas (the "and"). It quite simply makes for better conversation.

For instance, you're at the first meeting of a newly formed book club. You've read the book. You've even made notes about what you liked and didn't like. You're really prepared to look smart. But that's not what you're here for, is it?

So when the host asks, "What did you think of the book? Did you like it?" instead of running through your list of critiques, you say, "Yes, I loved it. I thought it was so touching, especially at the end. But I was really impressed when Lydia told me how she thought the ending could have been different. I'd love to hear her talk more about that." It's such a relief -- and so much more enjoyable for everyone -- when you don't have to prove yourself to be the smartest person in the room.

It's so easy to incorporate these improv techniques into your life. And, with a bit of practice and observation, you'll be winging it like a pro before you know it.

Whenever you have a chance, watch improv artists at work and learn from them. Catch Larry David on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which uses dialogue that is largely improvised. Or rent any Robin Williams movie. Boy, talk about tapping into your intuition! Nobody does it better or has more fun with it.

Better still, consider taking an improv class yourself. Check the listings for local acting schools or community centers. Bring a friend with you. Let yourself go. And, hey, you might even move your own scene forward in ways you never dreamed you could.

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Copyright © 2009 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

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