I am a marketer. I am also an improviser. That means I am also a storyteller. Like improvisation, all great marketing is ultimately storytelling.
Before I threw myself (slightly kicking and screaming) into improvisation, I did sketch comedy and stand-up. Few things will help you stretch your comfort zone (read: scare the pants off you!) like comedy and improvisation (Think: Whose Line is it Anyway?). Improvisation is a storyteller’s weight training. It can be daunting and downright uncomfortable doing it, and yet once we grow, it becomes part of who we are. And, as with training on a regular basis, the results are worth it. I’ve written about this before – improvisation is an incredibly strategic marketing skill.
Here are a few of the invaluable lessons that improvisation offers about marketing.
Risk Taking. Great marketing is part art. Hey, I don’t make the rules! Improvisation involves creative risks and following our gut (not just our heads). Great marketing, too, involves taking a few risks. There’s no way around it. When we push that comfort-zone, we learn what works. Risk is a muscle; when you exercise, it grows and serves you well. To evolve, marketing must challenge the status quo. Sure, sometimes things won’t work, and there are no guarantees. The more you take risks, the more you fail quickly and get to what works. As with improvisation, there is no way to know if something works except one: doing it.
Yes, And. ‘Yes, and’ is the cornerstone of improvisation as it is the building block for great scenes. If your on-stage partner calls you “Mom,” you are a mom in the scene. When we ‘deny’ an offer, the scene stalls. Marketing involves ‘Yes, and-ing’ your audience. If your audience says your brand is X, you are X. Your customer ultimately owns the brand and defines it in a way that is meaningful for them. As marketers, we shape it, we try to position it; yet our positioning is ultimately in the hands of our customers. This is why great marketers recognize that building great services, products and marketing is an act of co-creation with the customer just as any great improvisation scene.
Make Your Partner Look Good. In improvisation, your goal is to make your stage partners look good by accepting their ‘offers’ (choices). When you focus only on your choices, you not only deny your partner; you compromise the continuity of the story you are creating together. Great marketing is all about making your customers – not you – more successful. Customers don’t exist to buy your stuff. They have real human challenges, and your goal is to make them successful, happy, and delighted. Yet, how often do we read jargon-filled, company-focused ‘(me, my, our’ vs. ‘you, your, their’) content? Drop the focus on your methodology, your IP, your jargon, and your baggage. What matters is making your customer the hero of the story. That is a great segue to my next point.
Storytelling. Improvisation is storytelling, and so is marketing. If we can’t tell great stories, our marketing will never have a material effect. Stories bring laughter, inspiration, memorability, and a much needed human touch. Too many facts in improvisation (instead of reactions and emotions_ can make a scene robotic. Marketing, too, has to connect with our hearts and guts – not just our ‘heads.’ Most buying decisions aren’t ‘rational’ anyway. Read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational or Roger Dooley’s Brainfluence.
Leading vs. Following, and Knowing the Difference. Years ago, I had a boss who gave me life lessons wrapped in axiomatic witticisms delivered in his comforting Southern accent, “Kathy, the sun can’t shine on the same dog’s ass all the time.” He was a character, and, it turns out, quite right. The focus can’t always be on you. In improvisation, players need to learn when to lead a scene, and when to follow someone else’s great idea to move the story forward. That’s what it means to be a team and make your partner look good. Players that over-take scenes are called “drivers” because they drive the scene into a corner. The result is never as good as if we allowed other peoples’ ideas to help shape it and make it better. When the scene naturally coalesces around someone else’s idea (read; not yours!), it’s in the best interest of the scene to rally around it instead of trying to ‘drive’ the scene YOUR way.
The same is true of great marketing. You have to know when to let go and follow your customers’ lead. Great marketing involves putting our best ideas out there and allowing our customers to shape those stories in their own ways. Letting our advocates – our enthusiast customers – drive allows us to learn what they need and how our marketing can make THEM look good. When we try to control our brands too tightly (we really don’t have control today!), we risk alienating audiences. Improvisers learn to let go for the good of the group outcome.
Marketers need to know when to let go of their plans when the situation calls for it. It can be scary, yet being able to change direction – to improvise as needed– is the hallmark of agile marketing. Since markets are dynamic; adaptability is critical.
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