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Some colleagues walk into a room… If you’re no fan of meetings, the next bit is no joke. Stand-up comedian Max Dickins shares improv skills to help break the ice, from what to say to body language.

Meeting, meetings, meetings. Love them or hate them, in modern working life they’re as certain as death and taxes, but for a lot of people they are anxiety-inducing situations. People want to use a meeting to show everyone what they can do, but often they freeze in the pressure of the moment. In other words, they wish they were better at thinking on their feet. But help is at hand. Improvisation is an art form based on doing just that, and my world of improv comedy offers you some tips you can use right away to seize the day, whatever the situation.

Star of the meeting

1. It’s OK to be obvious

Many people feel blocked in meetings as they feel the need to be original, clever and witty. It’s not as if they can’t think of anything to say; it’s just that when they do, they filter it through these criteria. Their inner critic soon gets the better of them and so they say nothing. On stage, improvisers overcome this problem by applying this rule: be obvious. In other words, rather than waiting to think of the best thing they could say before they speak, they let themselves say whatever is obvious to them at that moment.

What does this look like off-stage? Well, for example, if you enter a meeting room, ask yourself: what’s obvious to me here? There are hundreds of things you could say to get the conversation going, from “I like your watch” to “I’ve given up drinking coffee” to “the view is great up here”. Now, are comments like these going to get you a promotion? Of course not. But what they do for you is get the conversation going. And, if you’re nervous, there is nothing like saying something early to relax you into things.

2. Trust yourself

You might now be thinking, “OK, but what do I do next?” To make conversations easy, put all the focus on the other person. Improvisation isn’t about having a million funny or clever things to say. It is not about being ‘quick’. It is simply listening and responding to the last thing your scene partner says. We become nervous when we get stuck in our head focusing on ourselves, so concentrate on listening as attentively as you can instead.

Another tip: try what we call a ‘yes, and’ style response, and accept and build off the last idea shared by your scene partner. It keeps you connected to them, makes them feel heard and it takes the pressure off you.

3. Try status matching

Status is not just where you are on a professional hierarchy; it is a behaviour. It is something we do. We often experience imposter syndrome in meetings because the person we are with comes across as high status: they take up a lot of space with their body; they speak slowly and deeply; they speak first. This can be intimidating until you understand that status is a set of behaviours that you can copy.

If someone is high status, match up your non-verbals to their non-verbals. You’ll see it transforms how they interact with you. Now, a lot of people are uncomfortable with playing high status because they conflate it with being aggressive and dominant. But this needn’t be the case: you can play high status with an empathetic and humble mindset. Just think of leaders such as Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu. If you want to increase your presence, ‘happy high status’ is the way to go.

4. Commit to your choices

When you make a choice to speak up, really commit to it. What does this mean in practice? Be loud and proud; don’t ask permission to speak; don’t apologise for your contribution when you make it; politely ask people who interrupt you to let you finish; and avoid using qualifiers that undermine the credibility of what you say, such as “perhaps”, “just” or “quite”.

5. Remember: it’s not all on you

In an improvisation show, just as in a meeting, the pressure isn’t on one person to solve everything or bring ‘the big idea’. It’s a team effort. The metaphor we use to represent this concept is that we are trying to build a cathedral on stage – a beautiful, magnificent show – but we do this by bringing one brick at a time. Our focus is on gradually adding small bits of information together as we move, rather than providing the whole answer all at once. You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room all the time – just bring your brick.

About the author

Max Dickins, comedian and improvisation expert, and author of Improvise!: Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work (Icon Books, £12.99)

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Further reading on meeting skills is available through the resources below.

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  • Update History
    15 Sep 2021 (12: 00 AM BST)
    First published
    06 Apr 2023 (12: 00 AM BST)
    Page updated with Further reading section, adding further resources on meeting skills . These new articles provide fresh insights, case studies and perspectives on this topic. Please note that the original article from 2021 has not undergone any review or updates.