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Miami Herald Business Monday

Improv can help your business skills

Trainers use improvisation for business -- or bizprov -- to teach skills for the workplace.

The Miami Herald
Business Monday
October 8, 2007

BY MONICA HATCHER

Interactive Training Solutions, the brainchild of improv actor David Suarez, third from left, helps professionals communicate more effectively. Suarez leads, from left, Lisa Roberts, Michelle Villalobos and Veronica Malazzo.If the idea of public speaking sends a cold bolt of dread through your body, the prospect of improvisation comedy may be simply unthinkable.

Six courageous souls, including this Miami Herald reporter, faced the unknown last week in an Improv for Business -- or Bizprov -- workshop by start-up Interactive Training Solutions.

Interactive Training Solutions is the brainchild of improv actor David Suarez, an FIU graduate with a master's in business administration and director of Just the Funny Improv Theater Co. The 35-year-old spun the company out of a grad school business plan assignment, joining a cast of entrepreneurs who have parlayed their creative careers into the field of executive coaching and professional development.

A similar outfit in South Florida is Influens, headed by theater director and acting coach Achim Nowak. Influens, launched in 2004, offers daylong workshops that introduce professionals to acting techniques that help engage and communicate their authentic selves.

Another group, Improv Yourself, founded by Carey Kane, is geared for those simply interested in acting; but professionals who have participated in the Miami classes have said it has helped them better their presentation skills at work.

NATIONAL TREND

Around the country, other companies have incorporated improv techniques in designing training specifically for corporate types. Suarez says his program takes the idea a step further. ''A lot of [it] is based on getting people into doing the improv skits, it's usually about the fun and games part, but it doesn't go as diagnostic or applied as we do,'' Suarez said.

Improv is not just willy-nilly make-believe, I learned -- though, naturally that's a big part of it. For one, you have to be able to think on your toes -- a talent prized in most workplaces.

Creating an impromptu story line takes other important skills. You have to establish relationships. You must listen closely.

Suarez said bringing the improv principles to bear on challenges at work can help one become more aware of certain group dynamics and, in a way, exert greater control over them.

''The idea behind it is to be able to break down everything that is going on around you -- the location, the relationships, the focus and the context,'' Suarez said. ``It's sort of a mental check list -- it's the way we prepare as improvisers to perform in a scene, but it just happens to be life.''

So how did all this play out at the workshop? At 9 a.m., I was strutting around a conference room in the Conrad Hotel like a zebra, trying to intone those strange cooing-like sounds it makes. My peers, who included a human resource manager and an intern from Burger Kingwere similarly meowing, scratching under their arms and picking imaginary bugs off each other. All this before any of us were formally introduced.

Since the day-long workshop would later involve delicate personal disclosures of our own perceived weaknesses and problems at work, Suarez insisted we act like asses, zebras or whatever to break the ice, shed our inhibitions and gain others' trust.

MAKING AN IMPRESSION

We next introduced ourselves to the group. Suarez, acting as facilitator, offered tips and gentle corrections. I needed to make better eye contact with my audience and smile more. I, and others, also needed to work on our ''elevator pitch'' -- a snappy summary to get people interested in knowing more about us.

My favorite came from Veronica Malazzo, who said she worked as a life strategist. She faced a turning point when she hit 30. Over a weekend, she decided to quit her job and travel around the world.

''I went on a honeymoon with myself and it was woonnderful,'' Malazzo said.

I was intrigued, and asked her about it over lunch. That's exactly the idea, according to Suarez: To get ahead in the business world, you have to be memorable.

After that, we quickly moved into the fun part -- the improv. Suarez paired us up with a partner. He allowed the audience to decide the relationship between the actors and set the scene. There were a lot of laughs, and it was fun.

After lunch, we got down to the real work of role playing scenes in which we had to resolve a major challenge faced at work.

The skits went something like this: One participant, Herman Tomeu, president of DigiFirst, a Miami information technology company, said he was having problems managing his work day. Often, unexpected and unfruitful service calls derailed his schedule.

''Sometimes these people want rock bottom prices, they want things cheap, and I have to interact with this person who is being challenging,'' Tomeu said.

Tomeu's partner played the part of the difficult customer and they went back and forth. The group and Suarez offered tips.

At the end of the day, he said it was enormously helpful. ''It's helped me to handle certain kinds of customers -- sorting out the good customers from the bad customers -- and deciding who is worthy of my time,'' Tomeu said.

Suarez said he wants participants to leave with greater self-awareness, appreciation of their strengths and understanding of their weaknesses.

''If you have challenges, we can work on them, get some strategies out . . . and arm you with an applied strategy to better solve those challenges currently facing you,'' Suarez said.

 

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