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Improv Effects uses comedy approach for business training

Dann Sytsma and Brian Lam are yes men.

With more than 30 years of combined experience in business and improvisational comedy, the pair decided in 2012 to merge the two disciplines and create a new brand of team-building workshops using the “Yes, and …” approach.

“‘Yes, and …’ is an improv tool comedians use to create a story onstage by building an idea off whatever someone has just said,” Lam explains. “If someone says, ‘This is a stickup,’ you have to say, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a stick up and …’ We expand on that idea in our workshops.”

When team members in companies say “Yes, and …” to their coworkers, they build on the ideas of their coworkers, validating one another instead of tearing down communication and losing valuable time and resources floating competing ideas, say Lam and Sytsma,

“It’s not about taking a bad idea and making it great,” Sytsma says. “It’s about taking the ideas we have and sharpening them. You start to see people take more ownership when other people are contributing with them.”

“Yes, and…” is a new method to the companies they work with, but it’s second nature to Sytsma and Lam, who have trained at well-known improv theaters in Chicago — Sytsma at Improv Olympic and Lam at Second City. The two are also well versed in business. Sytsma founded Crawlspace Eviction, Kalamazoo’s longest-running improv theater troupe, and Lam is the owner of Lam Creative Solutions, a Kalamazoo public-relations and marketing firm. Lam has a background in restaurant and business management; Sytsma, in chemistry. They call their new endeavor Improv Effects.

The two met three years ago when Lam interviewed Sytsma while writing an article on Crawlspace Eviction for Encore. Lam began working with Crawlspace Eviction, and, after an “aha” moment at a workshop when he realized how similar improv and business trainings are, he approached Sytsma about creating Improv Effects.

The duo started small, running local and regional workshops, but soon found their schedule filling out with training sessions across the country, including in Chicago, Toledo, St. Louis and Cincinnati. Their clients range from small businesses, like Gazelle Sports, to large firms, such as the health-sciences company PerkinElmer.

It’s been a quick rise to success, though Improv Effects is not the first or only company run by improv comedians that focuses on business training. But Sytsma and Lam contend they’ve got something the competition doesn’t.

“There are a lot of people with more experience in improv doing this, and some are a half step below Saturday Night Live,” Lam says. “When it comes to applied improv, though, Dann and I have an edge because of our corporate backgrounds. We know what businesses need.”

“They’re good,” says Tim Martin, manager at Gazelle Sports’ Kalamazoo store, which had Improv Effects conduct a training workshop for its staff. “The workshop was a great balance of professional and fun. Trying to engage folks who are age 20 to 70 — which is the range I have on staff — is difficult, but they’re able to reach every age group and experience level.”

Gazelle’s staff deals with varied interpersonal situations every day so it is important for each staff member to think on his or her feet when engaging with customers, Martin says. That’s why improv training works well for Gazelle — it teaches staff to react in the moment and build off of what the customer says instead of pushing a company or individual agenda.

“We pride ourselves on not giving a sales pitch,” Martin says. “This training helps us learn how to make a sale without doing that.”

While Gazelle invited Improv Effects to help sharpen the staff’s quick thinking and communication skills, another local organization, OnePlace, asked Improv Effects to help community nonprofit leaders engage in conversations and use the “Yes, and …” technique to resolve conflicts quickly while building on ideas.

“What the workshop does is get into the power of response —sometimes it’s a simple ‘thank you’ instead of grunting and nodding,” says Thom Andrews, who directs this organization that provides training and development opportunities for nonprofit leaders. “The power of positive response, just acknowledging people, was a key takeaway for us, but we also focused on active listening and responding on our feet.”

OnePlace has asked Improv Effects to present a second workshop, Andrews says.

The ability to teach people to adapt to shifts in the workplace and the world beyond was one of the reasons Improv Effects stood out to Andrews, he says. He could see the immediate application of the training as it was happening.

And, in case you were worried, you don’t have to be a comedian to take something away from the workshop.

“There’s no pressure to be funny or profound at all,” Andrews says. “They make the situation very accessible to everyone. You just have to listen to the person before you and respond. Because of the nature of that format, it lends itself to funny situations. So you do laugh — not because people are being comedians but because it’s fun.”

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A Positive Response

“What the workshop does is get into the power of response —sometimes it’s a simple ‘thank you’ instead of grunting and nodding,” says Thom Andrews, who directs this organization that provides training and development opportunities for nonprofit leaders. “The power of positive response, just acknowledging people, was a key takeaway for us, but we also focused on active listening and responding on our feet.”