Tina Fey once said, “Just say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward.” It’s a great motto for our personal and professional lives—especially for those with careers in engineering.
By incorporating improv techniques into their work, engineers can boost their communication confidence, increase their ability to innovate, and learn to bring a “Yes, And” attitude to the myriad challenges and constraints they face when they collaborate with colleagues and work with clients.
Improv is the art of composing, uttering, executing, or arranging anything without previous preparation. During improv for engineers activities, participants engage in interactive exercises and experiential role-play, provocative discussion, as well as the opportunity to rapid-prototype (and pitch!) new products and services.
Improv for engineers can build skills in the workplace regardless of whether participants are in leadership roles and want to better support their employees or are part of a team that develops new projects and/or products that require constant communication with colleagues.
Along with “Just say yes,” the principles of improv include “Start anywhere” and “Embrace your mistakes.” These are also essential skills for effective problem-solving and design innovation which are central in engineering.
Improv is a great way to develop confidence, increase innovation, and heighten communication (and listening) skills so participants can speak up in meetings, during pitches to clients, and on behalf of their company or organization.
Improv for engineers can improve on-the-job skills in four unique ways:
Spontaneity is the signature feature of improv for engineers—and it is also a key feature of small-group collaboration. Within small groups, engineers interact and solve problems in an unscripted manner that follows a path dictated by the group.
Spontaneity also entails some loss of predictability, which can bring anxiety for many engineers. But through improv activities—i.e., taking a pause in their work to spontaneously act out the shape or action of a device they are constructing—engineers can make better cognitive connections. And the laughter and conversation that ensues can build stronger bonds with their colleagues.
Creative Problem Solving
Engineers need to craft and deliver leading-edge solutions that require creative ideas and innovative thinking.
But in the real world, engineers are bound to encounter a variety of obstacles—unwieldy bureaucracy, difficult clients, shifting deadlines, and red tape.
It can be far too easy to let the challenges create blocks for creative ideas. But in improv for engineers, those challenges become catalysts for problem-solving because participants learn to “play” with them—to look at the problems from multiple perspectives, for example, or to reframe them. Even role-playing problems from the client’s point of view can yield new insights.
Engineers want to know as much as possible about a project before they get started. But often during a project’s progression, problems arise, deadlines get moved, or a project team can change altogether.
Improv enables engineers to run with changes that occur during the process and not get stuck in the should haves and would haves. It enables them to see change as a natural part of projects that, sometimes, can improve them for the better.
Working Together as a Team
Like effective engineering, improv for engineers begins with paying attention.
Improv for engineering encourages deep listening and attentiveness to partners. By having to rely on others to produce a common goal, no one person accepts the full weight of a task on their own. Even if the team creates a silly scene, the collaboration and spontaneous creativity are invaluable.
Actor and comedian Scott Adsit once said, “The rules of improvisation apply beautifully to life… You have to be interested to be interesting, and your job is to support your partners.”
Improv is a great way to deepen communication skills, especially through the challenges that arise in day-to-day work.
Improv for engineers doesn’t simply tell participants how to speak up. It requires engineers to develop the mindset, behaviors, and habits to consistently speak up, improve their interpersonal communication, and cultivate engaged listening.
Effective communication requires deep listening, awareness, and the willingness to be personal, spontaneous, and responsive. Improv for engineers can teach and reinforce these skills.
Improv also addresses the interrelated skills connected to vocal empowerment, which support resolving conflict and making high-impact presentations, especially during product pitches.
Improv for engineers emphasizes non-verbal cues, body language, and facial expressions. These elements of communication are important for conveying confidence, understanding, and engagement in engineering discussions and presentations.
Many improv activities also involve storytelling and building narratives collaboratively. This can help engineers structure their technical explanations or project presentations in a more engaging and relatable manner.
Improv activities often involve stepping into others’ shoes and understanding different perspectives. Engineers can apply these skills in their work with teams, clients, or end-users who have differing viewpoints.
Through improv, engineers can adapt their communication style to different situations and audiences, a useful skill to tailor messages for technical colleagues, management, clients, and the public.
While many communication development programs look at confidence, presence, and what to say, improv for engineers supports participants to:
In a word—YES!
Fear can manifest as fear of failure, fear of public speaking, fear of expressing ideas, or fear of change. It is a huge part of what keeps people silent in the workplace.
In 2021, Crucial Learning found that a shocking 9 out of 10 people have felt emotionally or physically unsafe to speak their mind more than once in the past 18 months.
Improv can help create a supportive and safe environment that encourages engineers to step out of their comfort zones, build confidence, and overcome these fears.
For many engineers, navigating conversations where there is the possibility of disagreement or conflict—whether that is a difficult client meeting or collaborating with colleagues that don’t agree on a project— is uncomfortable. And yet, shifting conversations from difficult to daring is one of the most important skills an engineer can possess because it builds confidence.
Engineers who make a habit of facilitating daring conversations create and sustain better relationships, engender more trust, are better able to manage stress, and prevent resentment and burnout.
Improv enables participants to develop the self-awareness and tools to avoid staying silent, ruminating, or winging high-stakes conversations. It shows participants how to:
Engineers across disciplines can find value in using improv techniques in their day-to-day work.
Improv for engineers encourages thinking on your feet and coming up with creative ideas quickly. Mechanical engineers can use improv techniques to facilitate brainstorming sessions and generate innovative solutions to design challenges or technical problems.
Improv can help engineers think critically and adapt to changing design requirements during design reviews. Mechanical engineers can engage in role-playing scenarios that simulate unexpected issues or user interactions to identify potential flaws or improvements in their designs.
Computer engineers can use improv to quickly prototype ideas, build proof-of-concept demos, and iterate on solutions within time constraints.
When gathering requirements for a project, improv techniques can help computer engineers better understand user needs. Role-playing user interactions and scenarios can lead to more comprehensive and accurate project parameters.
Improv for engineers can assist biomedical engineers particularly when it comes to designing and building medical devices and improving healthcare. By giving themselves prompts and responding to situations where they need to “invent on the spot,” biomedical engineers can become more effective innovators and inventors. And through role play, they can ensure that they are keeping patients’ needs centered.
In high-pressure situations, such as emergencies or unexpected flight issues, aeronautical engineers can benefit from the quick decision-making skills and adaptability fostered by improv for engineers.
They can also use improv to simulate flight scenarios and interactions with aircraft systems, which can help identify safety risks, operational issues, and usability concerns before flight tests.
Electrical engineers can use improv exercises to simulate circuit design scenarios, which encourage them to think on their feet and quickly come up with innovative design solutions. This can lead to more efficient and optimized circuit designs.
Improv can assist electrical engineers when they communicate complex technical concepts. By practicing clear and engaging explanations, engineers can bridge the gap between technical and non-technical audiences.
Once they quickly discover that improv helps them solve their real-world challenges and approach them with more ease and play, they will be eager to participate in improv for engineers experiences.
To ensure that engineers initially are enthusiastic and engage in improv, share success stories and case studies of engineers who have effectively used improv techniques to solve engineering challenges or to improve their team dynamics. And make sure to have buy-in from top leadership and supervisors/managers to show there is support for improv throughout the organization.
Start small. Begin with simple activities in a low-pressure environment, and gradually introduce more complex exercises as engineers become more comfortable and enthusiastic.
Create a collaborative and non-judgmental atmosphere that allows engineers to apply improv techniques in a way that feels relevant and comfortable for their specific roles. Encourage mistakes during improv sessions. This can help them minimize mistakes when the stakes are higher and enhance their overall performance.
Also, use improv exercises and activities that mirror real-world engineering challenges, which makes the experience more relatable and engaging. Consider bringing in a facilitator who is skilled in improv and understands and has worked with engineers.
Also, be sure to highlight how improv for engineers positively influences career growth. Discuss how improv skills lead to improved communication, collaboration, and problem-solving abilities and that this can lead to leadership opportunities and increased job satisfaction.
Finally, encourage engineers to reflect on the process and share feedback and insights about how they can apply improv techniques to their own work after improv sessions are complete.
Secondary schools, universities, and, specifically, colleges of engineering, have embraced improv as a tool.
At Cornell University’s Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering, workshops introduce students to improv for engineering concepts to get students to bring out the “artist within them” and to “overcome their fears of being wrong.” These lessons include “Make Mistakes, Please” to encourage students to explore beyond their initial ideas.
Northwestern University offers an Engineering Improv class where students “learn the difference between figuring it out and letting it out.” As Professor Joseph Holtgrieve says, improv isn’t about “winging it.” Improv requires a strong structure when participants commit to a character, a common set of assumptions and boundaries, and ultimately, to each other as performers.
This allows participants the freedom to let the content emerge through connection, “which is the true joy of improv and an extraordinary thing to witness,” Holtgrieve says. “The same thing happens in engineering, but the context is the problem, the commitment is to the team and the process of user-centered problem solving, and the content that’s allowed to emerge consists of the users’ underlying needs and interests—which leads to a user-centered solution.”
At Johns Hopkins University, a local improv instructor encourages engineering students from a variety of disciplines to “think on their feet.” Students say the class has improved their public speaking skills as well as helped them not to worry about the unexpected because they can handle what is thrown their way—whether that is a line in improv class or a change in a project based on user feedback.
Improv for engineers can usually be delivered via face-to-face and virtual training sessions and through team-building experiences.
Improv for engineers can also be paired with design thinking so that engineers better understand how to address problems and surprise and delight customers (or patients) by centering their voices in the creation and development of innovative solutions. When improv for engineers is paired with design thinking, it can be used to generate new products and services, identify and fix oversights in existing programs and offerings, and shape important written and verbal messaging.
When improv for engineers is integrated with design thinking, it accelerates idea generation, wards off perfectionism and groupthink, and heightens vocal empowerment.
Step into Your Moxie can be your partner to conceive, design, and implement unique and memorable improv for engineers events that bring employees together, increase cohesion, and promote creativity and innovation. As discussed in the previous section, we also can connect improv for engineers with design thinking as a standalone experience for engineers or as a joint offering for engineers and other aligned departments.
With a background in women’s studies, drama education, and improv, prior to launching her own consulting company in 2007, Step into Your Moxie Founder and President, Alexia Vernon, taught improv, theatre, women’s studies, and public speaking for multiple colleges and universities.
Step into Your Moxie’s Improv for Engineers Programs: