When in doubt, improvise

Kivilcim Gunay | 07/20/2022

Plan, prepare, practice. Three Ps leading to success … in a world where we could always know how things will play out ahead of time. Often, I am put on the spot — asked questions about topics I have not been able to think through and refine my answer. This used to result in a nerve-wracking experience complete with sweaty palms and butterflies in my stomach; however, I’ve found there are ways to get better at responding on the fly that do not involve developing psychic abilities.

As a UX researcher, I am often presenting, whether it’s delivering an eight-minute summary or facilitating several-hours-long workshops. While I have always enjoyed sharing the hard work I put into uncovering insights, I also find it to be one of the most challenging parts of my role. I have continuously been working on my public speaking skills by controlling my breathing and calming my nerves to ensure I articulate my words clearly, in addition to performing at open mics, singing at jazz jams or even karaoke-ing with friends to get more comfortable with being in the spotlight. Over time, I have come to realize that what used to make me the most nervous was lacking the “perfect” response to a situation I hadn’t anticipated.

Perfectionism vs. improvisation

A facilitator I met through a storytelling course mentioned improvisation classes were behind her effortless presentation skills and the strong connection she was able to establish with her audience. As soon as in-person classes were available again, I enrolled in a beginner improvisation course. In the eight-week program, I learned the foundations of improvisation that put me on the spot for two hours per every Thursday evening, my roughest workday.

The first class was a breeze with a couple of ice-breaker games and getting to know everyone’s names. In the second class, our games became harder. “You have five seconds: pick a character, change your tone, pick an occupation, and answer questions as if you are this character.” This is when I started getting into my own head and thinking, “I’m not ready for this, I need more time to make sure what I say makes sense and is interesting enough.”

Eventually I found that perfectionism is taught a good lesson by improvisation. Where perfectionism pushes you to rethink, revise and try again, improvisation demands you to be attentive at this moment, proceed with confidence and simply do your best; there are no mistakes.

Embracing mistakes, finding joy

Embracing “mistakes” has been one of the key lessons of the program. In class, when someone made a “mistake,” we usually had the same reaction most of us have to a slapstick comedy where someone trips and falls. Saying the “right” thing all the time is just not that funny. A man who smoothly walks down the street isn’t, either. Even though I am not encouraging reckless mistakes for the sake of having fun, it is not the worst idea to own your missteps and at least find a little joy when they inevitably happen.

Achieving group synchrony through improvisation

I have not completely lost all the pressure I used to feel to have the right answers, but I have gotten much better at swimming with the flow when something disrupts the perfect plan I had in mind. I’ve learned to trust my intuition in the moment, and to channel the right insights to the best of my ability on the spot. In fact, I found the program so illuminating that I have asked the organization to do an improvisation workshop for our entire UX research team.

Daniel H. Pink, in his book When, writes about the importance of having synchrony between team members. Successful group timing results in higher satisfaction, connectedness and productivity. Improvisation is among the activities that promote this interconnectedness. During our team’s workshop, we practiced “yes and -ing” active listening, quick thinking, and trusting not only ourselves, but also each other through playing games simulating a lower-stake environment where we weren’t able to plan, prepare or practice. This workshop, though only foundational, was time well spent with people I collaborate with daily. It served to deepen our bonds as we all learned a new skill together.

In the bigger picture, we improvise in life frequently. As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.” I think the best we can do is: expect the unexpected, whenever we mess up, laugh a little, say yes in the flow, and try our best to make the most of the experience.

Illustration by Ilze Spilde