Improv, that domain of theater students, has become the latest discipline taught at the nation's top business schools. The goal: to improve listening skills, speech delivery, and responsiveness. At New York University's Stern School of Business, for example, students study the techniques that underlie professional joke-telling. As part of their coursework, they also don featureless face masks to hone their body language, and practice dramatic enunciations of words (so "droooopy," not "droopy") to vivify speech patterns.

Improv training has also been added to the syllabi at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of North Carolina, and Duke University. School officials say they have turned to comedy because the standard leadership courses on writing memos and leading meetings have become outdated. Plus, recent scholarly research has emphasized the importance of emotional intelligence and nonverbal communication -- skills that improv helps to foster.

"What businesspeople can really get out of improv is being able to handle anything that's thrown at you," says MIT improv instructor Lakshmi Balachandra. "One of the things business school emphasizes is they want people to learn how to think outside the box," adds Jaya Krishnan, a student at Stern. "This, to me, is an important way of doing that."