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  • Using Improv Comedy Skills to Handle Difficult Job-Search Situations

    February 24, 2016 | By NACE Staff

    Best Practices
    Two women exercising their comedic chops.

    TAGS: counseling, program development, spotlight

    Spotlight for Career Services Professionals

    Here's a scenario. A student has an upcoming interview with an employer for a position with a prestigious accounting firm. The student prepared by practicing from a list of generic interview questions he found online. His roommate—the mock interviewer—made him feel comfortable, and by sitting on his bed in his dorm room to answer the questions, everything was familiar to him. He confidently breezed through his responses. Everything was on point and he felt ready.

    On the day of the interview, the student was nervous even before he arrived at the interview site. His anxiety was compounded by meeting many professionals and being ushered into a room that was imposing. The first questions asked by his interviewer were familiar—ones he had practiced. Then, it came … a question so far out there, he could never have anticipated it. His interviewer watched his reaction and waited for the response. Out of his element, among unfamiliar people, and burdened by the weight of being judged, the student locked up.

    This scenario is an example of the outcome Jake Livengood is trying to help his students avoid. The way he is doing it, however, is unique.

    Livengood, assistant director of graduate student career services at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Global Education & Career Development, leads a highly interactive and impactful improv comedy workshop that helps students confidently handle the unexpected that may come up during job search or graduate school interviews, or presentations.

    "During the workshop, we practice skills needed for successful interviewing, team-building, and communicating," explains Livengood, who is also a student of Improv Asylum, a Boston improv company that holds shows and offers corporate training. "I then connect these experiences to why they are important in various settings, including job interviews, teaching, and presentations."

    The 60- to 90-minute session helps attendees respond confidently in an uncertain environment, identify ways to respond when feeling nervous, become better listeners, and boost team-building skills, things that other, traditional workshops also aim to achieve.

    The twist for Livengood is his workshop is 0 percent lecture and 100 percent creative participation. The group forms a no-barrier circle and warms up with a "word toss" exercise in which the first student starts with a word and students subsequently offer the first word that comes to mind based off the previous word. The group must then circle back and connect to the original word.

    Livengood mixes in some extras, such as offering examples of power poses and positive body language as pioneered by social psychologist Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School, and breaking out his Stormtrooper candy dish of actual oddball interview questions that students choose randomly and to which they must respond.

    "Improv is about how the group can do well, not just one individual being funny," Livengood says. "It's about building—building teams, building trust, and building something creative together. It's very interactive and is in a supportive environment. Students come in apprehensively, but we look goofy together. It's a shared experience and I can see the nonverbal changes on people's faces."

    He has presented his "Improv Comedy Workshop to Improve Communication and Public Speaking" 10 times since last summer to groups ranging from MIT pre-health and Ph.D. students, members of the Graduate Student Council, and participants in MIT's Momentum Program for first- and second-year students.

    He also will be taking the workshop on the road, as he will be presenting it to students at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

    Livengood suggests other career services practitioners interested in building programing around improv comedy:

    • Connect with campus or local improv groups.
    • Get training in improv and practice it often.
    • Read about the research associated with the benefits of improv on building confidence and strengthening communication skills.
    • Make the connections between what they are teaching and its practical application to students in their job search and graduate school interviews.

    "The great thing about the improv comedy scene is that it's collaborative," Livengood says. "Just like this workshop, we just want to create great results for all participants."