Comedy and improv for training: improvisation is the new role play

Gerry Maguire Thompson, lead trainer at Positive Comedy Training, introduces the concept of comedy improvisation as an extraordinarily powerful, versatile and serious training tool.

Comedy and improvisation together constitute an extremely valuable resource that can enhance just about any kind of training or learning activity, and be adapted to produce a wide range of learning outcomes. This is a dynamic and exciting new approach to training, based on innovative methods which are set to become widely used  and influential over the next ten years.

What is it about comedy and improvisaton that together makes them such a powerful tool for learning and self-development?

First of all, the qualities displayed by comedians are admired and envied – and extremely useful to us all. They are known for admirable and desirable qualities such as fearlessness, creativity, and confident self-expression. People would like to be able to access these abilities in their work and in their lives. Comedy based training activities can enable us to:

 - be who we really are

- be fully in the present moment

- thrive on the unexpected

- develop courage, spontaneity, charisma, creativity and energy

- create and use our own authentic humour, naturally and organically

Furthermore, comedy is attractive - comedy is cool; comedy is rock-and-roll. Many procurers of training, and many individuals seeking their own training, are looking for something which is different, lively and exciting.

Many, many people would like to be more funny, and humour is a very powerful attribute in business, in the world of work, and in life in general; but comedy based training is not just about learning to be funny - there's much more to it than this.

Like children, we all learn and develop fastest when we're having fun; and both comedy and improvisation involve fun. The formats and genres used in comedy themselves offer a useful array of models for achieving our training objectives. Stand-up comedy, for instance, is an excellent model for developing solo capabilities such as engaging an audience; double-act is a great format for practicing one-to-one interactions such as interview; while sketches are a powerful model for developing skills in group situations.

Laughter is beneficial in itself. Comedy and improvisation based training activities are certainly great for making training enjoyable, exciting and fun, but they are ideally suited to working towards a wide variety of other outcomes. Examples include:

  • drawing in reluctant participants
  • building confidence, overcoming nerves and reducing stress
  • developing self-presentation, speaking and communication skills
  • thinking on your feet, developing instinct and the capacity to rely on it
  • encouraging adaptability and the capacity to turn the unexpected to advantage
  • fostering teamwork and co-operation
  • providing tools for leadership, negotiation and conflict resolution
  • creating interactive scenario type settings which can address almost any issue
  • addressing many issues that could be more difficult or unsuitable to deal with in a more serious or literal context

The improvisational approach is an inherently interactive concept, suitable for learning by doing, rather than listening to someone speaking. Improvisation based activities are quintessentially adaptable to the varied requirements of different kinds of groups and individuals, different learning situations, different levels of resource, and different training issues and outcomes. You could run the same activity five times and it would come out differently each time. Although cultural traditions vary, the basics of comedy are universal.

Traditional role play can be highly unpopular with participants, often experienced as excessively prescriptive or forced. Scenario based improvisation is far more flexible, more individualised, more responsive, more empowering, and more fun. I would say that improvisation is the new role play.

The ability to improvise is also a huge advantage to trainers too, enhancing their ability to adapt learning activities and devise new ones – and respond to whatever may come up in a training session.

For in-depth guidance in applying these methods in training, including detailed descriptions of training activities and how to use and adapt them to different circumstances, see Thompson’s Presentation Training with Comedy, available at £15 plus p+p from

contact details:

tel: +44 0 1273 463611/ +44 0 7986 561860



skype: gerrymaguirethompson

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