Improvisation on stage can be a scary, intimidating thing. Sure, you have some rough guidelines and an end goal, but you’re never quite sure of the twists and turns you’ll take in the middle. Well, isn’t business a lot like that, too? And just like the way an improv performer can reel in an audience with good storytelling, the same is true in business.
We, as business owners and marketers, can borrow from improv to help us better interact and connect with our audience by creating layered stories, not being afraid to take risks, taking the lead and encouraging followers, as well as catering content to your ideal audience.
Rich: Kathy Klotz-Guest is a speaker, author, and improviser. A former tech marketing executive, she is the founder of Keeping It Human. Her mission is to help companies unlock more big ideas with improv so employees and customers thrive. A live streamer, the hashtag #yesandbrandshow, she is the author of Stop Bring Me!: How To Create Kickass Marketing Content, Products and Ideas Through the Power of Improv, named a “top marketing read” by Inc.com. She’s been published in fancy places including Convince and Convert, Marketing Profs, and Huffington Post. Kathy studied at Comedy Sports Second City, and still performs improv. Kathy, welcome to the show.
Kathy: Thanks for having me Rich, I’m happy to be here.
Rich: Now obviously you do improve, that’s your thing. So how did you get involved in marketing and what are the connections between marketing and improve as you see it?
Kathy: That’s such a great question. So a lot of people assume that I started marketing and moved over and started improve, and the reality was I was parallel pathed it. Like a lot of people I was doing both. So I came up through tech marketing and 5-6 days a week I was hitting comedy stages. So I would work all day, study and perform at night, and I parallel pathed for about 15 years.
I kept trying to bring – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – I would try to bring improve into the work that I was doing and it bled over. And I kept having these “a-ha” moments that marketing and improve are very similar. So much of what I was doing was really storytelling for brands, and improve and comedy is all about the truth on steroids, it’s really the heart and soul of the truth.
There were so many parallels so I eventually left to start my own business, but really the journey for me was doing them at the same time. Improv really made me a better storyteller, it made me so much more flexible, adaptable, agile, all these different things in my work. So yeah, I didn’t make the leap from one to the other, I really did them at the same time and found that I couldn’t really serve two Masters equally unless I blended them together. So I ended that fragmentation and really started to be able to do that.
Rich: Now I think it makes that you could take your improve career and move it over to marketing, but did you ever have an experience where you were on stage and able to pull from your marketing experience?
Kathy: Absolutely! No question about it, I think being an improviser you have to sort of pull from things you know. I’d be in the middle of a show and all of a sudden I’m talking about marketing lingo and marketing buzzwords and things that sort of make a scene better. In comedy the way that we talk about brands, the way that we use buzzwords, the way that we write emails, the way that we talk to customers. If somebody talked to you like that in a bar, you’d punch them in the face and walk away. You’d never listen to them, there’s no credibility. And so that ridiculousness is great fodder for the stage because the truth of it is that anything is human, so it’s great comedy.
Rich: So Kathy, I’m not going to lie to you, improv – even watching other people doing improv – fills me with anxiety. How can I overcome that and channel my own creativity to develop more engaging content?
Kathy: So I hear that a lot and I so get that. I think the thing that I would remind people is that we’re all improvisers on the business stage. You already are an improvers. You may not self-label, you’re not out there saying, “Look at me, I’m a guru, I’m an improv ninja”, but you are an improviser. And every day in the business capacity we are faced with choices and too much stuff coming at us and we have to make choices in the moment, we just may not always realize we’re doing it.
I think one is to recognize that because we already have that capacity, in some ways we already are improvisers. The second thing is we get a choice to say ‘yes’ to something creative, and we’ve got these kind of negative inclinations because human beings sometimes are wired to look for reasons to say ‘no’ or to not do something. But when you get an inclination and you think this may actually work, the thing to ask yourself is, “How can I say ‘yes and’ to this idea or customer that’s coming to me with an idea?” How can I say ‘yes’ and find a way for that to work?
If you can just in your everyday work say ‘yes’ to a creative idea without judging yourself or judging somebody else, then I think you can start to adopt an improviser’s mindset and I think it will really work for you.
Rich: Alright, now I know that “yes and” is a big part of improv, can you just kind of explain that to the audience?
Kathy: Sure. So “yes and” we worship at the altar of “yes and”, it is the central attendant of our faith. So I’ve been doing improv for 16 years and I teach improv and I perform, and the thing I would say is all improv community boils down to this idea of “agree and add on”. So what does “yes and” mean? It doesn’t mean you’re going to do an idea, but for purposes of the way improvisers work on stage, is that by saying ‘yes’ to each other and adding on to an idea, we move the scene forward.
Think about it this way, what happens in a scene has a counterpart in the office. Imagine you’re in a brainstorming meeting and everyone is “yes, but…”, we don’t end up anywhere at the end of the day. Scenes go nowhere, our meetings go nowhere. We’ve all been in that situation, ideas get butted all the time. Well what if we flipped that and say…look, the improviser’s motto is that way that we move a scene forward is somebody will – for example – doubt me as a mom. But I don’t have kids so I’ve denied that offer. But if you come to me and say, “Hey, mom what’s for dinner?” I’m like, “Well, like all good vampires I’m making sure it has blood because you need to grow up to be a strong vampire.” So I’m going to add on to your idea that yes I’m a mom, and I’m going to heighten that by adding onto that that not only am I a mom but I’m a vampire mom. Now that’s a new piece of information and we just created something that didn’t exist before.
So that’s the idea of “yes and”-ing and adding on, what we call “idea heightening”. And that idea heightening can be used for great content, for brainstorming, for all kinds of innovation.
Rich: Alright great, because that brings us back to the whole idea. Obviously we talk a lot about marketing content on this show, and there’s a lot of small businesses listening in. I see a lot of small businesses putting out content on social media or in blogs and they’re getting little to no response, what do you think the problem is?
Kathy: There’s a lot of content out there chasing too little mine share. If you think about it from the perspective of you and I and your audience and everybody’s audience, we’re just tapped out. We are mentally tapped out, there’s just too much coming at us. So when you see that happening repeatedly, it’s probably a combination of things. The biggest thing it’s going to be is that something just isn’t resonating with your audience.
So if you know who your audience is, you know who your ideal customer is, and you know the kinds of things that they like or they talk about, find a way to “yes and” that. If they’re talking about the problems that they’re having with billing or they’re talking about the problems they’re having with getting publicity or traction, find a way to ‘yes and” that. Take that idea and ask yourself what are ways we can talk about this main problem that maybe we’ve solved and we can create content around solving that problem that will help that customer base.
So listen to the kinds of things that people are talking about, what are they liking. If you have an ideal customer online, what types of things are they consuming, because that’s going to tell you what their issues are and what kinds of content you need to be thinking about.
Rich: Ok, so if we are listening to our customers – and God help us if we’re not – but if we’re listening to our customers we know the kind of stuff that they’re looking for. What are some of the key concepts of improve that you can use to make that content more engaging, more memorable? I know you talked about “yes and” and maybe that’s the main tenant and we should focus on that, but are there other things as well in improv that’s going to take mediocre content that’s valuable but not exciting and really take it to the next level?
Kathy: Totally. So the second gospel according to improv, don’t be boring. And there’s no reason to be boring. The foundation of great scenes is really storytelling. So one of the things that we say in improv is that everybody has a “want”. In a great story everybody has a “want”, your audience is wanting something. What is it that they really want? And the difference between just a straight story and comedy, is that in comedy a person is going to chase a need – because they have that want – they can’t help themselves, they’re going to chase it.
But they’re going to get blocked. They’re going to keep getting up and chasing it and they can’t help themselves. They’re compelled to chase what they need. Well remembering that, think about the way that you tell stories, most people are really boring because we’re in transaction mode. So how can you be less transactional and more transformational and talk about a story, about your life, that everybody can relate to. Talk about it in a really open and vulnerable way, and if you do that you won’t be boring.
So there’s that. Go ahead and tell a very deep story. There’s ways to incorporate all kinds of different storytelling devices, but I’d say after “yes and” one of the big things is really understanding that story and that need and who the characters are.
Character development. A lot of times when we do tell stories we might tell you a name of a person in a story, but we don’t tell you all that cool who they are, and what they’re wearing, and what they smell like, and what the conflict is they were facing. I want to know what that conflict is, I want you to go deep into what the change is by the end of the story. So I think it really is just great storytelling devices, even if it’s not funny, you won’t be boring.
Rich: Well I guess that’s the next question. What if you or your brand or your product isn’t funny or playful, what if it’s very serious, how can you tell a story that’s engaging? I mean, it’s like I hear what you’re saying on one hand, but if I’m selling insurance, how exciting can I make a story about a man or a woman buying insurance?
Kathy: But is it really about buying the insurance or is it about something else in their life? Here’s the thing, it’s never about the product. And guess what? When people write me checks for the work that I do, they do not care about marketing, they just want results. So there’s something deeper going on, and if you understand and you are in insurance or banking, why do you think people bank with you. Do they really care to spend their time banking? No, they don’t care. But maybe you find out that x percent of your clients have kids in college, what if you started talking about what it’s like to have kids in college. What if you actually used that as the lens of all the things that can go wrong.
Allstate did it very masterfully with Mayhem and it’s very humorous. Your idea heightened of all the things that could go wrong. And it’s not boring because we’re laughing at the central truth which is, stuff goes wrong when you’ve got teenagers. So find the things that they care about.
The other thing about improv I’ll say is mash-ups. Take ideas that you think don’t belong together and explore them. I did a workshop for a ridesharing service recently – and you can probably name who it is – and one of the things that they discovered in finding content is nobody wants to talk about ridesharing. Here’s the thing, they did some deep dives and they found that a big percent of their audience were pet owners, and not only had one pet but multiple pets. So it got a large fan base of people out where I live in the Bay area of people who use ridesharing services that are also animal lovers. You can do tons of stuff like ‘bring your animal to work day’, or ‘bring your animal in the rideshare”, ‘ridesharing for pets”
There are so many fun things that you can do. The thing that you always have to think about Rich, is that it cannot be so dead on about “buy my product, buy my product, buy my product” that nobody cares. Find out the things that are important in your user’s life and talk about those things. That’s where content gets really meaningful and fun and not boring.
Rich: So my understanding of improv is that it’s very interactive, sometimes just with the people on the stage, sometimes just with people of the stage. And maybe this is more tactical than you usually get, but if you’ve got some idea and you want to tell that story, are their tactics that you can use in a Facebook post, in an Instagram post, in a podcast, that’s going to get it to be more memorable and maybe more engaging? Because these days everybody is focused on “How do I get people to respond to me on Facebook because that’s all Mark Zuckerberg cares about today?”
Kathy: Yes, that and elections apparently, that ad revenue from elections. Well here’s the thing, I think it’s a great question and it’s one I think a lot about. And there’s a term that we use in the performance world – and again I’m an MBA who came from marketing who also happens to have 2 decades on stage – so one of my favorite devices to use is a performance we call “breaking the fourth wall”. And breaking the fourth wall is exactly what you just described, this idea that not only are improviser’s talking to each other but we’re involving the audience. So that wall comes down with the audience.
So what ends up happening is maybe we’ll surprise ourselves and get an audience member and brig hem into something, or at the very least we start the scene off with a suggestion from the audience. Well what if you actually started thinking about your content in a very collaborative fashion? And here’s what I mean. What if you actually – instead of just posting about your trip – what if you asked, “What’s your favorite trip?” or, “I’m going to start a story about a trip and I’d love it if the audience added their story one line at a time” or, “Pick the 3rd picture in your phone right now and write up a funny story about it.” Engage your audience and invite them to create that with you.
So if you don’t think of yourself as having to create all your own content – and you don’t have to – you can involve your audience, that stuff tends to work because people love sharing their own stuff.
Rich: Ok, that makes sense. There are a lot of people out there who are overly sensitive and are willing to be offended over just about anything these days. Should we be worried about offending people? They just seem so over sensitized, it seems like anything we say that’s even vaguely interesting might be offensive to some people. Is that a reason to play it closer to the vest?
Kathy: No, absolutely not. I’ve said this before, and again I came out of marketing for corporations, so you’re talking to somebody who was in the world of tech and some of these tech brands can be conservative. I’ll say this, you always design for your ideal audience, always. If your ideal audience loves pets, talk about pets. If one person complains then they’re not your ideal audience, who cares.
We are living in a world today where you’re right, some people will look for a reason. And if it’s not your audience you can’t necessarily get worried about it or distracted. I think you cannot play it safe today, I think that the most risky thing to do today is to play it safe, that’s the most risky thing to do. There are brands out there that are super creative and they’re doubling down on taking risks. You don’t have to bet the farm, however, I would advise even small businesses no matter what industry you’re in to get a little outside your norm when it comes to content.
Start to experiment a little bit with all the different things that are sort of surrounding your product and expand a little bit, because that’s where the traction is. That’s what matters. If you can find the things that your users are interested in and talk about those – not your products – they don’t really care about you, find the interests of your audience and weave those into your content. That’s going to, in the long run, do more wonders than anything you could possibly imagine. So don’t worry about the onesie/twosie people if they’re not your ideal audience. Yes, everybody is easily offended today, so don’t worry about it. That’s my recommendation.
Rich: Are there any other lessons from improv that you want to share with us right now that can help us with our marketing, whether it’s how we market, whether it’s the messages we get out there, what’s one last thing that you want to leave us with?
Kathy: I think the biggest thing is the concept I talked about earlier which is “idea heightening”. Most of us stop at the obvious stuff and “yes and” is just a process to get through this idea of “idea heightening”. So I really encourage people to really think about, when you start with an idea most of our brains will just go to the obvious place. And we do stop there. The really good ideas are maybe 4, 5, 6 layers removed from that.
Here’s what I mean. If I told you all the different ways you could use ridesharing, but then I introduce pets, then we start to go 2, 4, 5, 6 layers removed from that. Now we’re getting to some creative ideas that never would have existed.
So I say this to the audience, don’t be afraid to take your idea to kind of a little bit of a heightened exaggeration place. You may not end up doing that idea, but it will be better and further out and more creative than where you started. So the first couple of ideas aren’t going to be the most creative, keep going, we call that the lower third. The best ideas are that last third where your brain just keeps struggling and it helps when you have a breakthrough and you have all these different ideas. So we use that on the stage very much so, that’s how we create really amazing, compelling stories that we just keep heightening. What else could happen here, what else could happen?
So I think that will be a really great way for anybody to act. What else can I do, how else can I heighten my current content and what I’m talking about?
Rich: I think that’s great advice because I think we’ve gotten to the point where almost everybody knows how to run a Facebook ad campaign, or an Instagram ad campaign, or post something to Snapchat, what’s really going to be memorable now and what’s going to separate you from your competition is that original piece of content and how creative and interesting and engaging it is.
Kathy: Absolutely. And if you like rules, maybe you adopt a rule like Coca-Cola has with their content studio which is that they spend a good 30% of their money and time on ideas that they think are kind of out there, because they’re looking for ways to push that creative envelope. So maybe just 30% of your ideas out there are maybe a little bit edgier that what you might do, and see what happens. I have a feeling that – I know for me – I’ve discovered that when I’ve gone there, those have been some of my best performing content pieces. So do yourself a favor and at least explore on a regular basis, and make that part of the content you do.
Rich: Awesome. Kathy this has been great, I’m sure people want to check out your book, they want to check out your website, where can we find you online?
Kathy: Sure, you can go to keepingithuman.com, that’s my business front. You can find things there on my blog, you can find out more about the books I’ve got – I’ve got 4 books, they’re on Amazon.com – and you can get them other places too. You can also follow mw, my Twitter handle is @kathyklotzguest, that’s the best place to find me.
Rich: Fantastic. This has been great, I really want to thank you for your time, Vampire mom.
Kathy: Anytime, anytime. Thank you.
Kathy Klotz-Guest loves to help businesses tell their stories – with humor and improv – to inspire creativity, strengthen collaboration, and create memorable experiences. Check out her website, or one of her many books she’s authored, and definitely follow her on Twitter.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine. He knows a thing or two about helping businesses grow by reaching their ideal customers, and to prove that, he puts on a yearly conference to inspire small businesses to achieve big success. You can also head on over to Twitter to check him out, and he just added “author” to his resume with his brand new book!