Preparing for a Job Interview? These Improv Skills Can Help

Work your way to success in your next job interview with these improv skills.

If you’ve met someone who has taken an improv class or two, they have surely shared that there are a few practical applications for improv in real life. Your newfound talent for witty one-liners in team meetings could win you the “Funny Guy” award at the annual Christmas party! Who knows what new heights you could reach with that accomplishment — you could get promoted to the next Senior VP of Human Responses or the Director of Dance Breaks! The sky’s the limit!  

If you ask a serious improviser (not an oxymoron), they’ll talk to you for at least an hour about the real-world merits of being able to think, listen, and respond on the spot. Even if you have never taken an improv class and are thinking, “Improv is for nerds, I would NEVER take one of those NERD CLASSES,” there are a couple of basic improv rules that may be helpful to you in a job interview. And if not in an interview, definitely on a first date 😉Yes, this is me telling everyone to take an improv class at least once in your life.

For those of us who have recently found ourselves out of work, the reality of the job hunt looms in the back of our minds like next week’s visit from great aunt Cathy. We’re going to have to get through it eventually, so let’s improv our way through the interview process! 

Before the interview

Warm up! Prior to every show it is critically important to get these three elements prepared: 1) Brain: to get focused; 2) Body: to loosen up and have fun; and 3) Bond: to establish team connection.

1) Brain: Whether it’s class, practice, or a performance, improvisers always play a silly game to start. We make up songs that don’t exist or host a series of made-up advertisements about a toaster oven. If any of these helps get your ticker ticking, go for it! 

For an interview, you need to do research on the company and then practice your answers to some common interview questions OUT LOUD. Trust me on this. Pretend your cat is your potential future supervisor and rattle out those answers. If you don’t have a cat, stand in front of your mirror and pretend you’re the interviewer, then be you, then back and forth. If this gets confusing, put on a hat when you’re asking questions, and take it off to respond. On the day of the interview, get your brain moving and thinking in sync with the company and the role you’re aiming for.

2) Body: To get the body moving and prepared to take on any variety of characters in a show, an improv team might play a game of zombie tag or have a slow motion ninja fight (see, we’re not nerds!). 

One of the worst things an interviewee can do is to show up lethargic. Just because your interviewer might show up with low energy and little apparent receptiveness to your brilliant examples of project management capabilities, it does not mean you shouldn’t bring energy to the table. If you don’t want to run around chasing zombies in your living room, do some jumping jacks or sing in the shower — don’t forget to warm up your voice to make sure you don’t sound like a toad-person during your introduction.

3) Bond: Connection is critical to an improv team’s success, so we’ll always check in with each other and ask how the day is going. We may also play a quick game of mind-meld where we free associate as a group until we come up with the same word. 

You’ll want to create a bond with the people you work with, so think about what kind of team you want to work on. What is important to you in a company culture? What kind of manager provides an environment where you can flourish? Come up with some questions you want to ask about how you’ll bond with your team, and think about what value you could add to the company. Why should they hire YOU?  

During the interview

1. Remember the first rule of improv: “Yes, and…”

Good companies are always looking for strong contributors, and by using the actual words “yes, and” in your interview, you’re showing them that you can already see yourself in the role and can demonstrate what you would bring to it. 

You can even frame responses in a collaborative way, by saying: “YES, it would be important that WE… AND…” That way, you’re almost tricking them into believing that you’re already on their team. Perception is reality — if you can get your interviewer to feel like you’re one of them, they’ll need to hire you!

2. Listen carefully and respond to the last thing that was said.

Often, interviewing can be jarring because the interviewer has a lot to get through and is sometimes just moving through a long list of questions. Each new question can almost be treated like a new scene with a different storyline and parameters. Keep what you said in the back of your mind, but your task is to dive into this new “scene” as another opportunity to show your interviewer a different aspect of your professional skill set. Just because you think you may have bombed one question doesn’t mean you threw the whole interview. Trust yourself and get back in there!

3. If you don’t understand the question, clarify.

Don’t try to answer a question that you don’t understand. It’s better to slow down and take your time to answer the question in the way you want to than to feel rushed and answer less confidently. Be sure that you’re on the same page with the question so your answer aligns with what they want to see from you. 

Speaking of aligning, if your interviewer begins to drink out of an imaginary coffee mug, you should also pick up a pretend coffee cup and pretend to drink out of it. “Mirroring” is another key improv technique in which this interviewer is clearly begging you to participate. You’d be hired on the spot if this series of events takes place.

4. Be specific.

Improvisers use specific movements to show the audience what space a scene is taking place in by doing “object work” that involves chopping vegetables, typing at a desk, or swinging a golf club. This specificity is what makes scenes matter and is what audiences remember. 

In an interview, you’re bound to be asked, “Tell us about a time when…” and you should be prepared to offer specific examples of when you solved a challenging problem, failed in one area or another, or had to work with someone you didn’t get along with. You don’t have to be so specific to use names, but you know what you did, Derek. 

After the interview

Just like every improv show isn’t a home run (because everything’s made up and the points don’t matter), you won’t be the perfect fit for every job. Don’t get too upset if your interviewer doesn’t invite you to the next round. It is prudent to analyze the interview, write down the questions you feel like you didn’t answer as well as you could have, and make adjustments for your next interview.

Improv teams always sit down after a show and debrief on what went well and what didn’t. You take the lessons learned and leave the rest behind. Keep hustling for the next gig, network as much as you can, and sign up for an improv class! 

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