Six Things Improv Class Taught Me About Preparing for Interviews

The power of performance (Hari Kondabolu, The Neptune Theatre, December 2017)

In an interview, it is impossible to anticipate every possible question you will be asked. You can prepare by thinking of possible questions and practice ways to structure your answers, but even with the best preparation, you still need to be comfortable with uncertainty. Without that comfort, it can be difficult to access your creativity and thinking skills at a time when they matter a lot.  

Investing in your skills is one way to practice. But when I speak with students in advising appointments or in workshops, learning to be confident in unfamiliar situations is a recurring theme in our conversations. And because of the frequency of these conversations, I’ve been curious recently about how to become more flexible and confident in interview situations. To learn more, I recently went to an improv class for people of colour hosted by the incredible and welcoming Blind Tiger Comedy.

 I don’t like change, and to be at ease, I need to know exactly what is going to happen so that I can plan for it. In other words, uncertainty is my least favourite thing. Improv on the other hand, is all about working with the unexpected and creating something meaningful, so taking this class (something miles outside of my comfort zone) was the best way I could think of to simulate what an interview situation might feel like.

Here are some of the things I learned through the class:

  1. A space of possibility opens up when you say “yes and..”.

One of the rules of improv that we learned during our class was that when someone offers you something (a suggestion, an object etc) instead of refusing it, deconstructing it, or looking for problems, you respond by saying “yes and..” and then you build on what has been given to you. Although “yes and..” sounds simple, saying these words changes your mindset, and allows you to  better see possibilities and solutions.

Students often share with me that when they are asked what makes them special or what qualifies them for a position, their mind freezes because they aren’t really sure that they are the best person for the job. That internal dialogue makes it difficult to answer the question confidently. In those moments however, a “yes and” attitude would mean being willing to engage with that idea and look for reasons why your experiences have prepared you for the position or opportunity you want to be a part of.  Even if you don’t feel 100% confident, a “yes and” attitude could help you be more willing to be confident.

2. Embodied learning is an important way to learn.

A key component of the improv class was to not just act out scenes with our words, but to try to act out our scenes with as much physicality as possible.  Through this process what we learnt is that when you allow yourself to act with your body, you access a different part of your brain and are better able to proceed rather than thinking through whether your ideas are good or not.

When it comes to creating confidence and feeling more confident in interview situations then, one way that can help build confidence then is to act the way you would if you did have confidence. That may mean eye contact, smiling, sitting up straight, projecting your voice, and with your body demonstrating that you are the right person for this job. Over time, embodying the attitude you want may help to grow your feelings of confidence.

3. Trying is the best way of learning (and improving)

It turns out that the best way of learning more about improv is not to read article upon article about its benefits, but to actually try it. When I entered the class I felt very nervous and out of place and felt like I was definitely going to do all the exercises “wrong”, but with each activity and game that we tried I felt increasingly more comfortable with not knowing exactly what was going to happen. Instead of feeling like I was going to mess up and not “get things right”, I started to enjoy the experience. I could enjoy the scenes of other participants, and be present instead of thinking about what would happen when it was my turn to speak.

This extends to building confidence when it comes to interviews as well. Although interviews can feel awkward at the beginning, the more you practice and do interviews, the better the experience will become.

4. Baby steps are okay.

When learning a new thing and developing a new skill, building your comfort level slowly but consistently can help keep things fun. In my case, I stayed for the improv class, but I didn’t participate in the performance afterwards. It was my first class, and that felt too much of a leap for me. If I continued with improv class though, perhaps I would try and do more with each subsequent class.

Similarly with other skills you are trying to build,  it’s okay to build your skills slowly and set consistent stretch goals for yourself in order to work up to where you want to be, rather than expect yourself to be completely confident at the outset.

5. We learn through partnership and teamwork. We support and are supported by others.

In each improv game we played we worked in partners or as a larger group to create our scenes. It wasn’t a competitive space, it was a collaborative space in which we created something new through accepting help and building with each other. That experience made me think about career development overall – so often we have questions about how to succeed in interviews or what our next steps are, but we don’t have conversations with others or practice with others to improve our skills.  But those open conversations help – and the more we are able to have open conversations and be a part of collaborative spaces of skill development, the less alone we may feel.

6. There are no formulas.

In improv class, there are principles and concepts, but there are no rules. Each participant in our class given the same structure and setup, produced very different scenes and material. By the end of the night, we could sense glimpses of everyone’s personality.

Similarly with interviews, although there are preparation methods that you can memorize and learn, there are no formulas to having a good interview. There are principles, but to be memorable and impactful you have to apply those principles in ways that fit you.

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