insight magazine

The Act of Improv(ing) You

CPAs can use improv-based sketch comedy to improve their business and communication skills — all while having a little fun. By BRIDGET McCREA | Summer 2019


What if we told you that the place where some of the world’s most talented comedians cut their teeth — including “Saturday Night Live” alumni John Belushi, Mike Myers, and Martin Short — is where you can learn better business communication and development skills?

While many of us know The Second City as an improv-based sketch comedy club that opened in Chicago in 1959, what many don’t know is that the same organization — which has grown into an influential comedy empire known for cultivating several generations of comedic superstars — also helps professionals break out of their “all business” shells, become better listeners, and interact with others on a light, fun level. In fact, through its Second City Works division, the organization handles both entertainment and content for a wide swath of companies.

“When we first started doing classes, we were teaching people who wanted to either get on our stage or get on ‘Saturday Night Live;’ it was a lot of actors,” says Kelly Leonard, creative consultant at The Second City in Chicago. “As we started to offer more beginner classes, we were also attracting doctors, lawyers, and people who had just gone through a break-up. They weren’t using improvisation to get onto ‘Saturday Night Live’ — they were using it to make their day-to-day lives better.”

Second City Works uses the same methods as its sister division, based on the improvisational games developed by social worker Viola Spolin in the 1920s, to create professional development, content, and events that drive personal growth and organizational improvement. “A lot of companies hire us to tackle all kinds of problems, be it poor communication, teams that aren't functioning well, or people who need to ‘unlock’ their ability to innovate,” Leonard explains, noting that the division has grown significantly since inception.

Leonard says improv is the perfect platform for achieving those goals because it gives participants a non-judgmental environment in which to let loose and be themselves. It also picks up where formal education leaves off. “For most of us, the educational experience is not about navigating the unknown,” he says. “Yet, what gets thrown at you in business is nothing that you can figure out by doing well on a standardized test. It’s something you’re going to figure out by being thrown to the wolves, and that’s hard for people.”


We’re all terrible listeners. In fact, most of us are thinking about what we’re going to say before the person (or people) we’re listening to is even finished talking. Knowing this, Second City Works developed a workshop called Last Word to help people acknowledge and overcome this bad habit. “The bulk of the time, we’re on autopilot,” Leonard says. “We get the gist of what people are saying, but then we move into our own brains and basically cut off the last part of what they’re saying.” For the Last Word, individuals are paired up and asked to start a conversation. The only rule is that Speaker B must include the last word spoken by Speaker A.

The exercise is a lot harder than it sounds (try it sometime). “People have a very hard time doing this,” Leonard says, “because they’re not used to listening all the way to the end of other peoples’ sentences.” From this experience, students unlearn the bad habits they’ve developed over time and replace them with more thoughtful listening.

“When you thoughtfully listen to someone, take it all in, pause, and then respond, it can be immensely gratifying,” Leonard says, “and much better than just rapid-firing back as if you haven’t even listened to what the other person has said.”

This is just one example of how Second City Works uses “human being practice” to help professionals improve their soft skills. “We give people a very safe space to fall on their faces, laugh about it, and get up and try it again,” Leonard says in pointing out that people generally learn more from their failures than their successes. “Unfortunately, both in education and in business, we don't give people enough space to fail their way to success.”


Second City Works caters to a wide range of business professionals who want to know what it’s like to fall on their faces and then get back up on their feet and try, try again. “Whether you’re a first job newbie or a grizzled exec, if you want to perform better, we can give you an edge,” the organization’s website states. “Our offerings are designed to get people engaged and energized, and they’re unrivaled at driving action and improving critical skills like communication, collaboration, creativity, and agility.”

Leonard says accountants and CPAs are perfect candidates for the experience. “Much like a doctor, a CPA’s training focuses on very specific tasks (i.e., knowing the year-end numbers, performing audits, doing tax returns correctly, etc.). They weren’t schooled in the art of emotional intelligence (being aware of, controlling, and expressing one’s emotions) or storytelling.”

While CPAs may not immediately correlate feelings like empathy and the ability to tell good stories with success in the field, Leonard says being able to create a narrative for ourselves (or co-create a narrative with someone else) can give professionals a leg up in the business world.

“As the world becomes more automated, and as we look at what the needs are for the future of work, those needs include storytelling, divergent thinking, problem solving, agility, and resilience,” Leonard says. “These aren’t skills that you’re going to get if you sit in front of a computer monitor all day.”

Improv also helps stoke inner happiness, even for introverted personality types that wouldn’t necessarily take an acting class or get up on stage. “Improvisation gives you the ability to find the agency within yourself to be happier, and we usually get that in social settings,” Leonard says. “Improv is great for people who are introverted because it gives them more agency and skills to navigate social situations and not get drained by those experiences.”


Getting up on stage with a group of people and doing things you normally wouldn’t do in your day-to-day life may sound daunting to anyone who hasn’t done it before, but breaking out of that shell can have a profound impact on the participant’s life and work.

“It really boils down to giving people practice and helping them take the games and exercises into their day-to-day lives,” Leonard says. By taking the improv experience with them and continuing to practice games like Last Word, students can continue improving their communication and people skills. “I've seen so many people open up by doing this work,” he says. “It’s one thing to hear it in a lecture or read it in a book, but when you’re physically practicing it in a room — and looking someone else in the eyes — that’s how you get to real behavioral changes and improvement.”

Leave a comment