Business Improvisation

By Jason Mitchell

As a sales training professional with a performing arts background, one of the biggest hurdles I have to overcome when I explain what I do to potential clients usually sounds something like this:   “How can a bunch of actors teach me anything about sales?”   Clients come to us at e-roleplay when they are looking for innovative and effective training solutions, where the learning in which they invest is sustained and actually sticks when their employees get back into the field.  Our incredible team of professional roleplayer/coaches all have backgrounds in the performing arts–whether that’s live theatre, improvisation, stand-up comedy or something else altogether. It is precisely because of these backgrounds that our roleplayers are ideally suited for training and coaching work.  Let me use one experience of mine as a starting point.

Iaction!’m in one of those large, banquet-style hotel meeting rooms that anyone who has been to their company’s annual meeting or a sales retreat can picture. I’m sitting across the linen-covered, round table from a Sales Rep, whom I will call Jim.  We have just finished roleplaying a scenario in which I was a small business owner and Jim was trying to sell me his product while integrating his company’s new branding approach.  I give him some feedback about not pushing so hard on solutions and about asking me some clarifying questions to find out why I chose a particular business model, noting how this will help him tailor the branding piece to me so as not to sound scripted or robotic.  He takes a long pause and stares at me, finally saying,  “Have you ever been in sales?” I have to admit that I break out in a bit of a sweat for a moment, and then decide honesty is the best policy. “No, I haven’t,” I say.  “I’ve been in involved in sales training for almost 10 years, but my background is in acting and I’ve been a customer all my life.  All I can tell you, Jim,  is that when you said my business plan is totally wrong and didn’t make any sense, and then pushed hard on how I should change my business, I felt defensive and I immediately stopped listening to you.”  I explain further that I had an emotional response to his statement that immediately, and perhaps permanently, affected how I felt about buying from him.  He seems mollified by this clarification, and admits some validity to my point: that attacking the rationale of my small business plan was not going to convince me to buy from him, even if he was right.   I didn’t need years of sales experience or an MBA to know how I felt in the moment. This is at the heart of what e-roleplay does. We use actors to portray realistic characters for the purpose of practicing a desired skill set and then provide coaching on that skill set.   This has an obvious benefit in terms of realistic improvisation, and there are many other key benefits that make using coaches with an acting background a great choice for roleplaying and coaching in sales training. Read the rest of this entry »

by Randy Sabourin

Practice makes perfect.

We have all heard the adage before: it takes time, practice, repetition, exploration, mistakes and successes to master a new skill. Perfect, though, is a rather lofty goal..

“When I was in school the teachers told me practice makes perfect; then they told me nobody’s perfect so I stopped practicing.”   Comedian – Steve Wright

So let’s say practice makes better or perhaps practice makes permanent.

Let’s explore how we generally acquire new business skills. Consider training a large group of sales people on objection handling and cross-selling and their managers on coaching to the new process. Usually the Corporate Learning and Development (L&D) team designs or purchases the training material, which is then incorporated into a workshop and perhaps an e-learning module. The participants are assembled; flights, hotels, venues are booked, and workshops are attended. The feedback from the workshops is outstanding, the e-learning scores are magnificent, and everyone is happy. Mission accomplished. If they were lucky, the Managers received an extra day of training regarding their responsibility to sustain the new sales process through coaching. While this process varies depending on the size of the organization and the commitment to the learning, this approach has been the norm for decades.

The real test of the training is whether the participants change their behavior in the field. If the way to measure ‘lift’ (a change in behavior and results) was part of the design process a key question is whether the Manager will have the skills to recognize any lack of change and then have time to coach to it. Usually, a few months go by and a small percentage of people are using the new content while Managers go back to focusing on their jobs with little time to coach. The status quo wins out and the L&D team goes back to the drawing board to design an even better training and coaching program for next year. Fingers point in both directions and the L&D budget is in jeopardy again next year with little or no evidence of return on training dollars invested. Read the rest of this entry »

By Randy Sabourin

There is some fascinating research about status and body language.  It has always been a topic included in our Leadership Development and Sales Training Programs. Recent research by Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School reveals that taking on ‘high status’ or ‘power poses’ even when pretending has a dramatic effect on our neurology. She proves that ‘fake it till you make it’ is indeed powerful. This is a video of her research.

If this topic is interesting to you this article on mirroring is note worthy. Researchers at Stanford showed that a simple mirroring process in a computer animated sales pitch increased sales by 20%!

Status is a hierarchical concept that is ingrained into our social style. It is body language, words, actions and drives how others see us as leaders. This article is good overview of Status and how we can exploit it (in a good way) to help with influence and collaboration.  Enjoy.

By Randy Sabourin & Cameron O. Anderson

Managers understand and appreciate the hard work and long hours their employees put in. Often they will thank staff by setting aside a day of play for activities ranging from golf tournaments to laser tag. But why do we continue to separate play from work? Are they mutually exclusive or can we find a way to connect the two and make play an integral part of the workday?

“The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” Brian Sutton-Smith

Employee engagement is a sign of a healthy and growing company. When employees clearly see how and why their work matters, they contribute to the overall goals of the company. But often employees come to work and simply function, dreading the next work day knowing they are coming back to do the very same thing again. According to studies on workplace engagement 84% of managers don’t know how to accurately measure their team members, only 7% of employees fully understand their company’s missions and what is expected of them to achieve these goals and 90% of Gen Y-ers say they desire co-workers who make work more fun ( Read the rest of this entry »

Musician and researcher Charles Limb wondered how the brain works during musical improvisation — so he put jazz musicians and rappers in an fMRI to find out. What he and his team found has deep implications for our understanding of creativity of all kinds. Your Brain on Improv

Other articles for Charles Limb:

Music on the Mind – Hopkins Medicine Magazine

Keynote: The Creationist -Johns Hopkins scientist Charles Limb on the music in his mind  – The Urbanite

Your Brain on Jazz: Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Improvisation. – Podcast from the Library of Congress

Business Improvisation – Performance Under Pressure (download the pdf)

The Challenge

A group of 25 Sales and Marketing leaders want to ensure that they are at their best in front of clients, speaking opportunities and industry events. They are of diverse background, some coming from sales, product marketing and industry analysts. Poor handling of objections during the sales process, questions during presentations and thinking quickly under pressure have been issues that their traditional Sales Training has not been able to address effectively. The client also felt that the team would benefit from team building in the process enabling them to get to know each other better while having fun.

The Client

ASCI was appointed by the VP of Sales and Marketing of an Electronic Goods manufacturer to work with her team. The team consisted of Regional and District Sales leaders, Marketing Directors and several Corporate Account Executives. Behavioral analysis (TAIS) of the team revealed that the dominant attentional style was Analytical/Conceptual combined with a very high need for Control and a very low propensity to risk.


The VP of Sales and Marketing wanted: Read the rest of this entry »

by Randy Sabourin

Coaches tell us that continuous practice of the basics is vital regardless of what level of success one has attained. In a profession where success is determined by performance in real time, practice is critical. Many professions implement this approach but sales people and business leaders generally do not.

The methodology of our PVC Sales and Relationship Management training program is considered by many to be advanced. It explores concepts like political acumen, counter-tactics and client relationships relative to that of competitors. We are increasingly being asked to adapt the program to a less experienced sales force. During the two-day PVC Fundamentals Program we spend approximately half the time on preparation (organizing, research, strategy, tactics, value propositions, etc.), and half on face to face client interaction (status, style, improvisation, objection handling, closing skills, appointment making, communication, etc.).

Successful veterans and first time sales people alike can benefit from ‘brushing up’ on some of the basics. There are numerous skills that successful sales people utilize for client interactions. Among the most important are increased awareness, listening, status manipulation, and improvisation. But one that is often overlooked is mirroring or mimicking.

Conventional sales wisdom tells us that matching a client’s posture, leaning in or folding one’s arms, helps the client relate to the sales person. The value of mimicking goes deeper than this and can have far greater value. In his book Honest Signals Sandy Pentland explores the type of unconscious signals that influence people to bestow trust. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s a windy cold February afternoon, looking out of the floor to ceiling windows of the skyscraper the day looks like night has already taken over. The darkness is perpetuated by the tinted windows, its 4:30pm in Chicago and the sun has indeed set. It’s been a long week but the team is looking forward to this evenings Team Building session. It’s not a cooking class nor is it trust exercises, this group is going to become movie moguls and create movies as preparation for their Strategy Workshop scheduled over the next 2 days. The client is the Foreign Exchange (FX) Traders and Sales team from a major Financial Institute. The objective of the strategy session is to find new markets and clients for a traditionally reactive division of the bank. Combining the fun and comradely of making a movie with the ‘heavy lifting’ of strategy creation may seem odd companions but there are several reasons why having these two disparate activities on the menu makes sense. Read the rest of this entry »

Improvising and being creative in real time under pressure is a skill that we appreciate in the arts such as music and theatre. We also admire athletes who develop an ability to ‘read the game’- especially a fast paced sport such as basketball or hockey. However, when I started researching improvisation for business applications I came across applications of its use in other professions as well.

One of the earliest and most interesting stories is Mann Gulch; where there was a very large forest fire in Montana in 1949. An experienced wilderness Firefighter, Wagner Dodge (great name for a firefighting hero), found himself and his crew surrounded by a wildfire. Conventional training at the time would have suggested that their best method of escape was to try to outrun the fire (some did try this- without success unfortunately). Dodge, however, improvised a solution to save his men: He started a new fire and he and his men took refuge in the burned away area as the larger fire raged past them and they managed to survive thanks to his quick thinking.

This is just one of many examples of how improvisation is utilized in non-traditional, non-arts environments. Corporations, for example, also often use an improvisation based process called ‘Wild Card Theory’ [Frank Ruff 2004] to prepare for unforeseen disasters like contaminated food, scandal, etc. In my opinion, of all the applications of improvisation out there, the most crucial is in the emergency services. I recently spoke with Dwayne Macintosh the Deputy Fire Chief of the Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute (FESTI) at Toronto Pearson International Airport about how improvisation plays a part in how they train firefighters to use the Jaws of Life when they face the challenge of extrication at a crash scene. Read the rest of this entry »

Forum Theatre as an Effective, Empowering Means of Problem- Solving in a Corporate Setting

It is no secret that as of late, many companies and organizations have begun to put a concerted effort into the health and well-being of their employees. Why?  Sure it’s nice to have a Gym in the office building and creative off-sites to rock-climbing centres, but doesn’t this just distract employees from their real work? If an entire office is attending a 2 day “creativity in the workplace” seminar, doesn’t productivity become an issue? Doesn’t everyone just have to play catch-up for the rest of the week? Aren’t these things more trouble than they are worth? Why are so many companies doing this?

The answer is because a company’s success comes down to people.  It is not strategy nor forecasting that affects the overall efficacy of an organization so much as it is employees. It comes down to Sue from accounting and Al in HR and they need to feel that they have a real reason to come into work every morning. They need to feel that their perspectives matter, are heard and appreciated and that they are part of something greater- a real team with an important function within a larger company that has a reputation to uphold. Read the rest of this entry »


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