If increased confidence and an improved ability to read people would help you in business or life, improvisational theatre may be something you should try. That's according to Gerry David, president and CEO of beverage company Celsius, who says improv skills have been instrumental in his career, which has steered him to the helm of a public company which recently received nearly $16 million in strategic funding.
After doing a Malt-O-Meal commercial at age three, enrolling in private acting school at five, he graduated from school, got a job at IBM and started taking weekend classes at the renowned improvisation school The Second City in Chicago. He was in good company--the venue produced the likes of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley and Stephen Colbert. In fact, Shelley Long and George Wendt--both who later starred on the television show "Cheers"--were in David's class. Here's what he told me about how improv can help anyone become more confident and successful.
CD: Does a person need to have a certain personality to be involved in improv? What if someone isn't funny or is shy?
GD: Improv doesn't have to be funny. It's a skill that you learn. It might come naturally to some people, but others go through the school of improv and come out a completely different person. It forces you to react quickly to something but make it meaningful. In improv, they do sessions where they tell you you're at a location interacting with people in a certain situation. Then you immediately have to start with another two or three people creating a meaningful session that keeps going. It trains you how to listen very closely to what others are saying and react immediately without any kind of script. And the end result has to be something that makes sense and people get something out of it, whether it's funny or otherwise. I saw individuals who I never thought in my wildest dreams would be able to succeed at something like that. It really transformed them and allowed them to become more comfortable in that experience.
CD: Another CEO I interviewed said one of the main things that he got out of doing improv was it helped him to be more comfortable with uncertainty. Would you say that's accurate?
GD: Absolutely, because you really don't know what that other person's going to say. You have no idea. You can anticipate a little bit, but what comes out of a person's mouth is what you have to react to. And it's not just about what you say and how you say it, it's also about reading body language. It's an all-encompassing type of training that I really think can play a key role in taking a person to another level of success in the business world.
CD: Could you see improv training being an alternative to something like Toastmasters for people who may be uncomfortable in front of groups?
GD: Yeah, absolutely. Earlier in my career I used to go to Toastmaster meetings. That's something where you're working with a comfort zone and being able to get up in front of a group of people and talk. But improv takes people to another whole level of refining that special ability to respond quickly and being aware of what's going on around you. A lot of different things go into improv because you're always anticipating what the next thing is going to be. I can sit around in meetings watch people's faces and reactions and anticipate what they may be thinking or what they're going to say. That came out of improv.
CD: Can improv help introverts achieve more in business and life?
GD: There's no question in my mind if a person is somewhat introverted or doesn't feel comfortable in front of people or talking with groups, that's clearly going to hold them back from really achieving their full potential in the business world. First, they have to acknowledge they have this problem interacting with people. Once they've made that determination and are willing to do something about it, it's a matter of finding a group. Acting in general allows people to get out of their normal comfort zone.
CD: What if someone wants to stretch himself with improv but is terrified he will fail and blank when put on the spot?
GD: Depending on the group they get into, a lot of these people doing improv are very supportive. Why not give it a shot and see how you can do? What do you have to lose? I mean, look, you have to get over that fear of failure, move forward and try it. You've got everything to gain and nothing's going to change if you you're not able to finish it. You're still going to be who you are, but you have an opportunity to really allow yourself to become better in certain areas that could really support you in your endeavors in the business world. You've got everything to gain and the worst that can happen is you're just going to be what you have been. It's like the saying: "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always be what you've been." It's time to make some changes.
CD: How does a person find a place to get involved in improv?
GD: There are small groups everywhere that do improv, especially in the major markets. You just need to go seek one out and see if you can get involved. If you work with a good group there will be people there who will give you guidance and help. I honestly believe that improv could be just a great way of training people as part of their business career.