Improvisation: It’s only natural

When we talk about Improvisation, we’ll be turning it into an almost technical term. It will mean something special amongst those of us who are choosing to read about it, write about it, or study or practice it. We’ll develop that meaning of Improvisation with a capital ‘I’.

First, though, let’s examine examples of how the word turns up in everyday conversations – what we can call the natural language use of the word.

If we go shopping with a carefully-prepared list of items to buy, so that we can follow an enticing recipe to offer a meal to our invited dinner guests, we are not improvising.  If someone shows up the next day and we create a lunch on the spot from whatever we can find in the cupboard, then we are improvising a meal (people will say). Both can be satisfactory occasions. While we might enjoy one more than the other, there’s no reason to suppose one to be superior in nature to the other as an event.

If I suspect it’s going to rain, I’ll take an umbrella. That’s planning. If I’m caught in the rain unexpectedly, I might improvise by covering my hair with a plastic bag. Again, no judgement, unless you perhaps pity my lack of foresight or admire my gift of quick-witted invention.

caught in the rainimprovised umbrellaWhen I’m playing tennis, I sometimes find myself in a position relative to the ball that I’d not anticipated, and with luck I can improvise a shot – on a good day, between the legs, Federer-style. “Well improvised!” I hear the commentators say in the imaginary broadcast in my head.

These are examples of improvisation in everyday life and language, rather than in any technical sense that you might hear from a group of players in improvised comedy or consultants specializing in applying improvisation with teams or organisations.

They involve a person making use of what’s immediately available – accessible resources applied in the moment. It seems to be the particular sort of moment when there is no plan or the plan no longer caters for what’s needed in that moment. So in theatre, improvisation is contrasted with scripted theatre, with the script serving as the plan. Similarly in jazz, when improvising musicians depart (deliberately) from the usual sequence of notes in the song.

We improvise unremarked all the time. Conversation is not scripted, but that facet is usually not worth mentioning. Someone was walking and spontaneously went to the left of the person approaching: so what!

Part of what’s impressive about successful improvisations is the creativity that’s apparent in the novel adjustment to the situation, the clever new use of resources (including skills). We notice that good improvisers deal well with uncertainty.

  They don’t get stuck. They experiment, try something new, take a small step to discover what works. They show skills in adapting the available resources to the situation, or in adapting themselves to the circumstances.

The illustrations for this blog were improvised by Angelina Castellini.

When have you been improvising recently? Which of your improvisations are worthy of mention?


First published 13/06/2014

Paul will be hosting our first webinar of the year,USING IMPROVISATION SKILLS IN LIFE AND AT WORK, on Tuesday 2nd February at 1pm:

Have you ever wondered how improvisers manage to produce magical results under pressure? Well, they are using skills that we all have, though we don’t always realise it. In this webinar, we’ll explore what improvisers do to respond in the moment to whatever comes their way, and we’ll learn precisely how we can do this too. Get ready to Embrace Uncertainty, say Yes to new experiences and throw away needless perfectionism. Paul Z Jackson, one of the leaders in applying improvisation for personal and team development, shares the secrets that will unlock your creativity, boost your confidence and add fresh zest to every encounter.


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