Improv and Engineering

“Whoa! Slow down Speedy Gonzalez...” is the all too familiar phrase my acting coach exclaims every time I rush through a scene. After spending the work day doing engineering, it’s definitely been a challenge to flip the switch to performing in the evening. As an engineer, my brain is constantly calculating, analyzing and thinking ahead; but acting requires a person to be in the moment, emotionally available and more open to risk. After years (and years, and years) of performing and taking acting and improvisation (improv) classes, I have made several observations on how improv and acting have helped me improve my professional skills as an engineer, thus blending both my professional and creative interests.

Rule #1 of Improv: "Yes, and ..."

The first rule in improv is to always agree with what your partner is saying. That doesn’t mean you necessarily think what they are saying is right, it means that you accept that they are offering something. “Yes” acknowledges that you listened to (truly listened and not just heard) their thought. The "and" means that you are going to contribute to what your partner is offering. A successful improv performance must always be dynamic, with both parties equally contributing and building on the other’s dialogue and actions. Living by the “yes, and...” rule sharpens individual listening skills and quickens processing skills. When collaborating in the work environment, going back and forth following the “yes, and…” rule promotes the group to work as a collaborative and productive unit. If colleagues know that you are a “yes, and” responder to ideas, they will feel more comfortable proposing to you innovative ideas that they might not have if they thought their idea would be immediately negated. 


If I’ve learned anything in improv, it’s that I cannot go into a scene with any preconceived ideas of what I am going to do or say. When that happens, I am immediately derailed because inevitably my scene partner will bring something completely different to the table (improv is completely unscripted after all). Just like improv, not every meeting will go as planned. Go with the flow. Adapt, but be prepared. You can take the amateur approach: freeze, stop everything, and destroy any forward momentum. Or you can be professional: adapt to the unexpected change, make it your own, and build upon it. With new codes, regulations and standards, engineering is an environment that is constantly changing. Being able to adapt to the new and unexpected is key to innovative design in a dynamic environment. 

Give Gifts

In improv, “giving a gift” means that you give your scene partner information to help build their character and the scene. An example would be “It sure smells good in here. I heard you spent all night baking a blueberry pie for the state competition”. When I perform, it helps me to remember that my goal is to make the other person look good so they have a successful performance. I can do this by giving them gifts. When my focus is solely on them, it is easier to set aside my judgement of myself and it takes the pressure off me. In the professional environment, when training someone, I see this as asking very deliberate and specific questions to help them refine their design so that it comes from them rather than just giving them the correct solution.

Have Confidence; Make Statements

It’s never productive when one scene partner keeps asking the other questions during a performance (i.e. "Where are we going?", "When are we going to get there?", “What are we going to do there?”). The performer who does this that puts all the pressure on their partner to come up with responses. It is likely that few individuals will be interested or captivated by that performance. Improv is about confidence, collaboration, and supporting each other to maximize performance.  In a professional environment, these elements are integral to success. In the consulting realm within engineering, our job and goal is to develop and create ideas and present them with confidence and conviction.

It's all about the Attitude

When it comes down to it, as with many aspects of life, it’s all about the attitude. It’s been said that people may hear your words, but they feel your attitude. So, have fun, enjoy the moment, and support each other. How much better is it when you work (or perform!) with energetic and collaborative colleagues who can feel your positive vibes and energy?!

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