What improv lessons taught us about live video


Some of NPR’s Facebook Live contributors participate in an improv exercise. (Claire O’Neill/NPR)

We’ve been doing a lot of live video on Facebook lately (upwards of 80 a month). Folks in the newsroom have embraced it and we’ve had fun playing with different formats and approaches.

Still, with this new form comes a completely new set of challenges for even our most seasoned radio reporters. They’re suddenly facing strange variables like a lens in the face and real-time interaction with viewers and trolls alike.

What a perfect occasion for an improv workshop! We held one recently for a small group of our Facebook Live contributors. No doubt you’ve read something at some point touting the myriad ways in which improv can improve your life: gain more confidence in public speaking, develop a more collaborative spirit and constructive attitude. And there’s a lot to apply to this often unscripted and unpredictable storytelling format.

Washington Improv Theater does this kind of “organizational training” regularly — and it seems to be gaining popularity. John Windmueller heads it up and says they did as many consulting workshops in September 2016 as they did in the entire year of 2015. But he and Jess Lee, our other instructor, tailored the one-day curriculum specifically to our needs.

The day kicked off with improv basics: Lessons in body language and classic improv exercises like “Yes and …” in which performance partners continuously take turns adding to a narrative. Lesson learned: Never be a naysayer. The second half of the workshop was geared more toward performance for a camera — and learning about things like high vs. low status characters.  

Regardless of the medium, improv skills would be useful to anyone who has to think on the fly — a reporter who acts as “talent” or a producer who is problem-solving behind the scenes; an interviewer or an interviewee. 

The participants learned a ton — and we did, too. Some of our big takeaways are below.

10 improv lessons for live video

Embrace the performance: What feels unnaturally exaggerated to you will probably come across as completely normal to the viewer.

Play isn’t just something that kids do: Or it shouldn’t be. Having a sense of playfulness is helpful for dealing with situations creatively.

Your audience is smarter than you. And it’s rooting for you. You’re in the hot seat and they’re not. Even though they’re situationally smarter than you, they also want to see you succeed. They’re on your side.

Take your work seriously, not yourself: Cuz that’s what really matters in the end.

Find what’s working and add to it: You may have to let go of how you expected or wanted things to go.  

Be interested, not interesting: In other words, get over yourself. It’s not about you. Your job is to bring the best out of the entire scene and everyone involved.

You are enough; you are interesting enough: Don’t be so hard on yourself. There are no mistakes. Let it roll off and move on.

This is about being more vulnerable: And humble. Simple as that. Just let go.

Stop trying to look confident — just try to have fun: If you’re sincerely enjoying the process, it will show.

If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole: Amen.

Claire O'Neill was an editor on NPR’s Visuals team.