J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations; Professor of Management & Organizations; Director of Kellogg Team and Group Research Center; Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (Courtesy)
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A few years ago, we kicked off a management course on using creativity as a business tool in an unusual way: instead of hearing a standard lecture, students were led through a workshop on improvisation by a pair of actors.
The goal was not just to have fun. Rather, it was to build a toolset that students could use to find inspiration in the ordinary and camaraderie among team members—and ultimately to pave the way toward risk-taking and innovative thinking in their business pursuits.
We mention this because, now that most business leaders are involved in back-to-back virtual meetings, many of them feel that something is missing: that feeling of inspiration, the desire to take risks or innovate, their connection to each other. In short, virtual meetings often suffer from a lack of improvisation and natural “collisions,” or unplanned, high-energy encounters with others.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Research suggests that people interacting online are more task-focused, or more likely to get down to business.
But this doesn’t need to be the case. With a little effort, there are ways to bring spontaneity, cohesion, and even fun into virtual gatherings—whether we are presenting data to the CEO, leading a discussion, or just looking to connect with colleagues.
As a social-organizational psychologist (Thompson) and an improvisor, actor, and communications coach (Scott), we have teamed up to offer six “devices” borrowed from the world of improv that allow business leaders to inject this needed element into virtual meetings.
Here, we describe them—and why they can be so effective.
One of the most awkward aspects of virtual meetings is conversational turn-taking.
In a physical face-to-face meeting, people primarily rely on a combination of nonverbal cues, including bodily and facial movements, and paralinguistic vocal cues such as throat-clearing, to know when to interject. When people communicate virtually, many of these important cues are missing, which can be disorienting.
In face-to-face meetings, there is often an exchange of pleasantries, or a “politeness ritual,” before the facilitator launches into the meeting’s substance... This ritualized pleasantry is harder to replicate in virtual meetings.
This can lead to “virtual logorrhea”—people talking way too long—or people interrupting each other. In either case, the result is that others either opt out of the conversation or become passive.
This conversational awkwardness can be overcome through cueing, which is related to a key principle of improv: “one voice at a time.” In cueing, signals are established to keep the conversation moving from one person to another in an orderly way. For virtual meetings, specific pictures, sounds, or words can function like a baton being passed among participants.
For example, Marla, the facilitator of a weekly 10-person virtual meeting, realized that turn-taking remained a struggle, so she decided to create a cue.
Earlier, she had assigned a fun, personal theme, “Favorite Vacations,” to the meeting, and each week a different team member would kick things off by sharing pictures from a destination and telling a memorable story. It made for a nice high-energy start to the virtual gathering.
In one meeting, when team members were starting to lose focus, she asked people to pause and reset by free-associating a word based on that week’s theme: a trip to Paris. Each member typed into the chat box a word that became their “cue.” From that point on, when someone spoke, they had to conclude their statement with their word: “beret” for Larry, “Riviera” for Nell, and “croissant” for Fatima.
Using the cues like CB handles, Marla turned her group into a set of truckers in a convoy. When Larry finished, saying “beret,” Marla said, “Thank you, beret. Croissant?” Picking up on her cue, Fatima shared her insights, closing with her “handle” and sending the cue back to Marla.
With those cues in place to signal turn-taking, the group spoke more concisely, paid better attention, and had fun.
On the improv stage, actors play “the beats of a scene.” Practically, what this means is that every effective scene needs a clear beginning, middle, and end.
So why should we expect effective virtual meetings to be any different?
In face-to-face meetings, there is often an exchange of pleasantries, or a “politeness ritual,” before the facilitator launches into the meeting’s substance. While on the surface these rituals seem to serve no purpose, they are the glue that binds the members together.
This ritualized pleasantry is harder to replicate in virtual meetings, however, with people joining in haphazardly and the one-at-a-time audio restrictions of meeting applications.
So leaders can impose an improv device to separate the “beats of a meeting,” keeping meetings on track while creating space for humor and creativity.
For example, as a warm-up to a virtual group coaching session, the facilitator can introduce the rapid-fire three-line improv game, “Set, Twist, Fix.”
In “Set, Twist, Fix,” participants are placed into a sequence and the first person announces a setting such as, “We’re at the beach.” The next person states a problem that could occur there: “We’re getting sunburns.” The next provides a solution: “Let’s apply sunscreen.” The fourth person wraps it up by saying, “And, scene!” The game is repeated until everyone has had a turn playing the roles of “Setter,” “Twister,” “Fixer,” and the director who closes the scene.
The game prepares people to be present and to focus on the task at hand by “playing the scene they’re in.” It also encourages people to be concise, solution oriented, and playful.
The structure of the game has the added bonus of getting the whole team used to creating internal boundaries: it prevents people from introducing problems before a new idea has even been fully introduced, and it allows people to more deeply consider an issue before getting into “fix it” mode.
When team members don’t share the same physical environment, they have to contend with the loss of mutual connection associated with “same-time/different-place.”
In improv, actors commonly use a device—mime—in order to create a shared reality on the spot. They virtually create something out of nothing by miming most of the objects and ideas in their scenes. This “object work,” as it is known, can also be very useful in virtual meetings, allowing members of the virtual team to enter each other’s environments, thereby building empathy and increasing perspective-taking.
For example, you may have one team member bring a large, heavy, beautifully wrapped imaginary box with a huge red bow and a present inside to your virtual meeting. Naturally, there is no box, bow, or present, but by carrying the imaginary box in—arms flexed and outstretched—and carefully setting it on the table for all to see and admire, it offers the rest of the group the opportunity to invent and share what they think is in the box, essentially innovating in the absence of actual objects.
During virtual meetings, team members need to work doubly hard to ensure that their own intentions are made clear. This can be achieved in part by sharing agendas and talking points with others in advance.
This object work doesn’t have to be imaginary, either. Team members can be prop comics! For example, virtual meeting participants can be challenged to combine a bit of “show and tell” into a storytelling activity.
In one instance, a member showed the group an object and described it—a lovely hair comb she kept by her monitor to freshen up before video calls. Each team member affirmed the object, then offered a different use for it. Comments ranged from “Cool comb. It could be a tiny ladder for a spider,” to “Thanks for telling us about your comb. It could also be a fake mustache,” to “I really like your comb. It could also be a diving board for a chipmunk.”
Another perk: object work offers an opportunity for people to reveal a part of themselves that they otherwise might not feel comfortable sharing. While some people have good internal boundaries and know how to bring their whole, authentic selves to each aspect of their lives, others have a very difficult time integrating who they are at home and who they are at work.
The human brain is hardwired to look for, and lock onto, patterns. Improv actors use this to their advantage, with the devices of pattern-finding and pattern-breaking being key to the success of many scenes.
Virtual teams can do the same by incorporating patterns into their agenda.
For instance, a team of software developers meets virtually every Friday to present status updates to their director, Colleen. A pattern of reporting has organically developed over time: Terry kicks off with high-level findings, Will breaks down the coding errors they have discovered as he screen-shares a graph, and Tom closes by discussing how the bugs were fixed.
In essence, it harkens back to the “Set, Twist, Fix” exercise described earlier: provide a setup, insert a turning point, and present a resolution.
The consistency of this reporting pattern reduces stress for all parties involved. It provides predictability in the midst of uncertainty, and increases everyone’s focus, as the presenters know their batting order and Colleen can process new data through a familiar format.
And to make sure Colleen doesn’t get bored, the team will occasionally break the engrained pattern: either by switching presentation roles or tossing in an unexpected element like a video. This curve ball keeps everyone on their toes and turns data dumps into engaging conversations.
Improv, by definition, tosses away the script and asks its actors to respond in the moment to the intentions of their fellow actors, all while making their own intentions for the scene clear.
For example, suppose that the intent of one scene actor is to “scold” their scene partner. To communicate this intent, their vocal tone would drop, their shoulders hunch, their eyebrows furrow, and their mouth droop into a frown. If their intent was to “encourage”, they would lighten their voice, straighten their posture, lift their eyebrows, and crack a smile.
Communicating intention is a particular challenge for virtual teams. Indeed, virtual team members are susceptible to “irony poisoning,” which means they are often more confused and less able to tell, for example, whether someone is being sarcastic or sincere. This makes virtual teams more likely to misunderstand, misinterpret, and assume negative intentions than face-to-face teams. This, combined with online disinhibition effects, can lead people in virtual teams to lash out in ways that they might not do in person.
During virtual meetings, team members need to work doubly hard to ensure that their own intentions are made clear. This can be achieved in part by sharing agendas and talking points with others in advance of meetings.
Before each meeting, virtual team members should also ask themselves: Is my message to inspire or to inform? To share or to prove? To welcome or to introduce? A keen focus on their own intentions will help everyone stay on point.
Just don’t put so much effort into accurately communicating your own message that you fail to glean what others are communicating. One CEO we know confessed that she spends most of the virtual meeting looking at her own image. This is not because she is a narcissist, but because she wants to ensure she is communicating positive body language in a time of radical downsizing and furloughing.
So yes, share your own talking points—but also pay attention to everyone else’s.
Improv actors bring continuity and connection to unrelated scenes by linking them together using an underlying theme: a device known as a “runner.”
Virtual team meetings can create runners too.
In a recent virtual meeting, a team was discussing how to create both a live online version and a recorded version of a course. In the absence of any shared visuals, confusion was mounting about just which of the two courses was being discussed. One member of the team then took an improv risk by referring to the live version as “LOL” for “live-online.” The group laughed, and then later in the meeting, “LOL” reemerged and served as an important clarifying tie-back to the earlier conversation.
LOL became the meeting’s runner—not because people were laughing out loud, but because it was memorable and livened up dull material. When people typed replies in the chat box, they used the laughing emojis 😆 😂 🤣. When people were sent to retrieve examples from other projects, their screen share started with a LOL gif.
One group in the meeting changed their virtual backgrounds to the stage at a comedy Open Mic night. It turned what could have been a tedious discussion into a chance to bond while getting the job done.
Runners help people stay connected to the content and make meetings more of a shared experience. They also remind us that even though we take what we do seriously, we don’t need to take ourselves seriously.
Virtual team leaders feel pressure to hit the ground running. But most of the managers we have spoken to are preoccupied with their “technical skills”: knowing where the chat function is or how to set up a virtual white board.
To be sure, technical skills are important, but the real challenge for effective virtual meetings is about building the human connection. By adopting the improv devices we have outlined here, the virtual team leader can hold effective, productive, and rewarding meetings.