What Improv Comedy Taught Me About Corporate Video

Yeah, that thing where people get on a stage and make up jokes on the spot is highly applicable to corporate video. Bear with me.

I’ve been a member of several improv troupes and have performed in countless shows. I’m currently a member of a group called “Improv Diary” that performs shows inspired by the live diary readings of brave guests. None of this is to say that I’m a master performer, or even a particularly good one, but years of coaching have, in more than a small way, informed my approach to the corporate video content that my partner Kerri and I create for our clients.


Image of an improv comedy troupe to illustrate the parallels between improv comedy and video marketing
Image by Benjamin Ragheb, Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic

Audiences don’t care what you do. They DO care how you feel.

If you’ve ever seen an improv show (or any kind of show, really) that you didn’t enjoy, there’s a good chance it was because the performers were trying to force an interesting plot while neglecting emotional authenticity. Inexperienced improvisers invariably grasp for laughs.

“Well that’s interesting, because we’re on a spaceship! And you’re a dog!”

Since the performers aren’t connected emotionally to one another, the audience members don’t feel like they’re witnessing an authentic moment. The result is usually a bored room. They audience is bored because the performers are trying to make jokes instead of having genuine, lucid fun.

In an improv show that delights its audience, the performers are having real moments together. They aren’t trying to be interesting – they’re just reacting naturally to each other’s emotional cues. They’re improvising. Any show done this way will get a better reaction from the audience no matter how mundane the plot looks on paper.

A corporate video can go either way, too.

The main reason we conduct improvised interviews instead of scripting our clients’ monologues is because it gives us a chance to capture authentic moments. We like to get the basics out of the way in the beginning. That way, as we get deeper into the interview, we’re free to lead the conversation away from a salesy tone.

In other words, instead of forcing plot (“our business does this and this and this…”), we’re focusing on what makes things interesting: emotion.

I remember one particularly intense moment during a class I took at Improv Olympic in Hollywood where the teacher was trying to get an emotional response out of a student who was too self-conscious to change his expression or raise his voice. The teacher got in the guy’s face and started pleading, “How do you feel? What do you want? Come on man! What do you want?

Image of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men to illustrate the impact of emotional candor in brand story videos

It was like the scene in A Few Good Men where Tom Cruise gets Jack Nicholson to crack by feeding him the level of emotion he wanted to have reciprocated.

The reason this scene is so famous has nothing to do with the issues of military ethics explored in the plot. The scene would have been equally wonderful had Cruise been trying to get Nicholson to confess to stealing from a cookie jar.

The scene resonates because Nicholson flat-out loses it. We get the sense that it’s not just Col. Jessup flying off the handle. It’s Jack Nicholson, the masterful actor, losing his own cool. And indeed, the film’s most famous line was improvised by Nicholson. How lame would that scene have been had it focused on the dry procedure of military jurisprudence, rather than the emotionally-laden relationship between two men with opposing world views?

Your chance to be Jack Nicholson

I doubt we’ll ever make a corporate video where the owner gets viscerally angry (I’m not ruling it out). But audiences connect equally well with all emotional expression, negative and positive, as long as it’s genuine. That’s why it’s important for us, as corporate video producers, to make personal connections with our clients while the cameras are running. That way, the client is talking with someone, rather than at the audience.

Like a great improv scene, a corporate video done this way delivers authenticity, and gives the audience access to a wholly human part of the business leader.