Improv-ing your way through life

15 January 2019
5 min read

I originally wrote this as a Toastmasters speech but thought I'd share as it has a lot of thoughts around performance, comedy, and learning.

I work on Alexa, a virtual assistant that help users to carry out tasks in their day. I work as a voice UX designer, which means I actually write the words that Alexa speaks (I promise it’s not my voice). As a designer, I spend time thinking about how we can make this technology more conversational and almost human-like because in real-life we don’t live our lives talking in scripts right?

Or do we?

If we take a step back and think about how we interact daily with some of our co-workers and co-inhabitants of our spaces, we might realize that our interactions are pretty monotonous and repetitive. “How are you?” “I’m doing well” “how are the kids?” “Good, growing up quickly.” “How is the weather?” “Rainy today but expected to clear up by tomorrow”

We repeat these interactions day after day without much thought to what we are saying or what it represents.

However, I want to talk about something that has been helping me take a step back and think about how I’m interacting with people in the world. And that is IMPROV.

Improv, or improvisational theatre, is a form of theatre, in which most or all of what is performed is unplanned or unscripted. Everything on stage is created spontaneously by the performers in the moment, on the spot.

Improv is most often used in a comedy setting, where audience members shout out suggestions for the actors on the stage to run with and create an entire scene.

Many people take improv classes to “loosen up”. Obviously some take them to become world-famous comedians – I was not one of them.

But as a humble, Alexa Voice designer, I just wanted to take it to learn what this field was all about.

I studying psychology in undergrad, and the concept of Freudian slip stuck with me. A Freudian slip is basically an error or a slip-up that actually reveals your true feelings about something.

For example, if a co-worker is talking about a teammate: "That girl was TEMPTING... I mean attempting to..." 

Thinking about Freudian slips, I was curious how an entire genre of theatre could be based off people blurting out the first thing that was on their minds.

When I went in for the first class, I was extremely nervous. But what I learned quickly was that this class was essentially two hours of giggling.

For someone like me that was so jaded about the world, it was a great exercise in being in the moment.

When you get on stage and someone says a line to you, you can’t deny them. You have to accept their line as a “gift” and run with it. Only one gift is allowed at a time.

For example: someone says “you’re holding a knife!” now I’ve been “gifted” with a knife and I have to figure out what to do with it.

In daily life, I would say “what knife?” “what are you talking about?” “Why can’t you take the knife away from me?” But in improv, when you’re on stage, you just have to accept it and move on.

If you think about it at a practical level, we go into meetings assuming things go in one direction, but when someone takes it in another direction, we completely miss what’s happening.

Another amazing lesson from improv has been around asking questions.

As a naturally inquisitive person and throughtout my professional career, I’ve been told to ask questions! Ask great interview questions, ask background questions, ask devil’s advocate questions. Questions are everywhere… except in improv.
When you’re on stage, you’re not allowed to ask questions of the other person? Why you may ask? Because everything is a gift and thus should be a statement.

For example, how are you? I’m fine. What is going on? Oh my kid is going to school. Questions put the onus on the other person to think of something and don’t allow you to keep the script moving forward.

If you think about this on a practical level, we are super used to an “asynchronous” world. We are used to responding at our own pace with text messages, emails, and social-media posts, when we’ve asked all the questions and on our own time. This really damages our ability to relate as real human beings in the moment and improv drags us out into the real world full of immediate person-to-person interaction.

The last lesson I want to share around improv is about relationships. With not being able to give more than one gift at a time, and not asking questions, the entire script becomes about the relationship between the two people. You get to focus on the emotions and the back and forth between two people which is basically 5 emotions (the same ones in inside out): joy, fear, anger, disgust, sadness. When someone hands you a knife you get to figure out why are they doing it and what does it mean. For example: “You’re holding a knife!” “YES, I’m going to kill you” or “hehe yes I killed her”. That says something about the dynamic of that relationship.

Practically, improv teaches us to listen more patiently and respond more slowly. You don’t jump in and respond to people before they’re done.

I am by no means a professional comedian, although people have told me that my face is pretty funny-looking when I sleep. I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned from improv.

While it is a great way to “get out of your head” and “make you quicker on your feet”, but it is so much more than that. By accepting gifts from others, NOT asking questions, and focusing on the relationships and emotions between two people, It’s helped make me a better listener, and more present in the moment.  Just as we train our bodies for survival mode (to fight or flee), maybe we should train our minds to allow stress and butterflies to be fuel for performance.

And as all of us are involved in one way or another to build the next generation of Alexa, it’s important to think about how can this virtual assistant relate to human beings.


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I acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Custodians on whose land I live, play, and work. I pay my deepest respects to all Indigenous Elders past, present and emerging.

© Jun 2024 Vinita Israni
No programmers were harmed in the making of this website 

Questions, criticism, and gibberish are always appreciated.


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