3 Improv Exercises That Will Take Your Content Brainstorms to the Next Level
Some years ago, I wrote this blog post for the Content Marketing Institute. I find it still relevant so I’m sharing it here, enjoy!.
With a culture so caught up on structure and editing, there is a pressing need to let loose; to let the mind speak and to take advantage of the social wave that is developing in the workplace. From the countless sources that fuel brands’ content marketing strategies, there comes a time when an organization needs to step back and evaluate the topics in its repertoire.
One of the best ways to get employees out of the mindset of “this is how it is” and into one of “this is what’s possible,” is to use interactive, improvisational exercises intended to stimulate creativity.
This approach may be intimidating to employees at first; but creating an atmosphere that supports individual opinions allows for open communication that can lead to discoveries that would not surface in a typical 9 to 5 strategy session.
Before getting started:
- Try to focus on using the term “Yes, and…”, where you build upon each other’s thoughts without using the word “no.”
- You should serve as a facilitator of these exercises to ensure that you are leading the group mind down a constructive path.
- Be prepared to record the session and to ensure that all team members are actively participating in the exercise.
- Do not edit any thoughts (yours, or any other participant’s) during the brainstorm session (save that for the debriefing period).
- After the session, hand out the “r.e.a.d.” sheet I’ve provided below, to understand which ideas participants thought were most valuable.
Introduction to improv word association
Given that most individuals on your team will have little or no improv experience, it’s important that you alleviate any sense of intimidation by easing everyone into the exercises. For these sessions, it’s ideal to work with a group of between four and 12 people — but if the group grows larger than 20, consider breaking in to smaller groups.
Start by having your teammates form a circle where everyone is facing inward.
Ask the team member on your right to say a word — any word at all that pops into his or her head, without any set context. From there, go around the circle in a clockwise direction, asking each person to add his or her own new word to the list.
After a few rounds of this, stop the group and point out any patterns that have naturally started to emerge. You’ll likely notice that most of the words are related — if not directly associated — to the words preceding them. Many of these are being triggered by visions, sounds, feelings, smells, or tastes that your teammates have associated with these words in the past. Use this as a transition to the next exercise, where each player is expected to start actively associating words in order to build out themes.
Developing ideas through improv word association
Since the group has just been acclimated to the rhythm of “performing” for each other, you can start using these exercises to explore your business. Next, write down key themes from your content marketing strategy on individual pieces of paper and place them in a hat. Your team should still be in a circle and will use the same free-association format as it did in the first exercise, only this time each word should be inspired by the word that came before it.
Start by choosing one term from the hat at a time — the term selected will serve as the starting point for each round of this exercise. The idea here is to explore the chosen theme as broadly and as deeply as possible, until the group has exhausted all possibilities and repetition becomes apparent.
In order to build upon the original word, members of your team should be focusing on saying a word that either is:
- directly related to the theme at hand (a relationship of A to A)
- a bit removed from the original word (a relationship of A to B)
- or is conceivably relatable to the original word (a relationship of A to C).
As mentioned above, players will pull from their memories and what they know to be true within your business, so it is important that participants fully support the decisions their teammates are making and understand that, in this moment, each statement is assumed to be true. In order to build momentum, each player should go off of the last word that is said and avoid saying any preconceived words that would derail the evolution of the pattern that is being created.
Putting this improv to use for creating content ideas
Let’s say a brand in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) category is starting to focus on the nutrition of one of its products. Some of the themes explored by the group with the prompt “organic” may look like this:
After de-briefing, the group may have all agreed that the following words stood out the most to them:
With these unique terms in mind, perhaps the group decides to do a series of blog posts centered on the farmers who produce their grain, with an emphasis on their laborious work routine and how, at the end of the day, despite all their hard work in the field, they still sit down to have a healthy family meal.
Developing stories one word at a time
In the final round of the exercise, your team will still be focusing on saying one word at a time. But this time, as you go around the circle, instead of saying random words or words that can be segmented into categories, your objective is to build a cohesive story.
One by one, each team member will have to determine the direction the group goes by saying one word that needs to be part of a “group thought.” The group will fall into a rhythm found in normal conversations and start to define where one thought ends and a new one begins as the exercise progresses.
Using the same prompt as above, here’s what the first round of this exercise may look like:
At first these words may seem silly, but during analysis you will start to notice that some will make you think a bit differently about the subject matter at hand. During the first exercise, the group explored different areas that showcased the value proposition associated with the product and even explored the food’s origins. Now words such as “germs” and “sick” surfaced that added context around reasons why people choose organic foods, as well as how to stay healthy by eating healthy.
It may be challenging to try to create a cohesive story around your client, but at bare minimum, it forces your team to think of how all the themes explored in the second session can be placed into practical use.
Key takeaways from these exercises:
- There’s nothing stronger than developing ideas through the efforts of a “group mind.”
- Using agreement allows for new ideas to be formed regardless of their relevancy or business impact.
- Collaborating on a specific topic allows for new points of view to arise that can fuel a fresh perspective on a possibly stale topic.
- New themes can be discovered that either support the brand or interests of your audience (or both!).
- By transcribing the recording of the session and gathering each participant’s completed “r.e.a.d.” sheet, you’ll be able to build a road map of new content opportunities.