- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

Normal, Ill. (AP) - It took several tries for a group of business students at Illinois State University to recite the alphabet during a class earlier this semester. In their final attempt, they only made it to “S.”

But their teacher, associate professor Terry Noel, was pleased.

It was part of a lesson in improvisation.

Noel believes there are things to be learned by students - and businesses - from the same improv techniques used by Second City or Improv Attack, the group with which Noel performs monthly at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

“Part of my job is to help them realize that going in front of a group of people is kind of scary, but it is not going to kill you,” Noel said.

During his years of teaching, Noel noticed that students did fairly well giving prepared presentations, but as soon as they were hit with the first question, he said, “it would be either ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ or ‘I’d better babble until my time runs out.’”

He saw a notice for an improv class in the theater department and asked to sit in.

“By the end of the first class, I was hooked,” Noel told his class in Business Organization and Management. “It gave me some tools that I can now share with you guys.”

Students seemed to enjoy and learn from the somewhat unorthodox classroom activity.

Junior Angel Castellanos, a marketing major from Plano, Ill. said after class, “I definitely see how it relates.”

At first, it was hard to get volunteers to come to the front of the room, but that changed as the class progressed.

“It really kind of clicked,” said junior Peter Tuttle of Chicago. The business administration major said the improv exercises showed him “how to work with a group” and how to build on the ideas of others.

Charles Ward, a junior majoring in insurance and finance from suburban Wheaton, said, “I think it was a good way to show how to adapt.”

The ability to adapt - and design organizations that can adapt - is crucial in business, Noel emphasized.

“Things change. They change fast,” Noel said. “The world doesn’t sit still for any of us.”

The first improv exercise was called, “yes, and.”

“The idea is to take what one person says and we’re going to agree and heighten it,” Noel explained to the class.

First he had two students act out a “yes, and” scenario while pretending to build a sand castle. Next, he had the class break into pairs and do a similar exercise.

It sounded like the Tower of Babel. There were a lot of smiles, many gestures and laughter.

He had them repeat the same exercise, but, instead of agreeing and building on the other person’s ideas, they said, “no.”

“We do that at work sometimes and we shut down ideas,” Noel said.

In another scenario, two students were supposed “experts” on anything and “joined mentally.” A member of the class selected the topic - “seal mating rituals” - and one person started saying whatever came into his head. With a tap on the shoulder, the other person would continue where the first left off.

In reality, no one is going to know everything about a business, Noel said, “but you know a lot more than you think you know.”

He said, “When we give ourselves permission to be creative, we’re more creative than we think.”

Then there was the alphabet test.

These students, most likely, have been saying their “ABCs” since kindergarten, if not before. But this time, they were standing in a cluster, shoulder to shoulder, with their eyes closed and could only say one letter at a time, and the same person couldn’t say two in a row. If two people said a letter at the same time, they had to start over from “A.”

Even without visual cues, the group got better as they went along.

“How might this apply in a group setting?” Noel asked the class.

Using the “yes, and” approach, he found ways to build on the responses of the students.

“It’s a little more than just listening,” he said, noting the importance of “giving other people an opportunity” in this exercise and in business conversations.

Some of the activities, on the surface, just appeared to be a game, such as “Zip, Zap, Zop” in which a dozen students in a circle used a gesture to “send” an imaginary item to another, alternating the three words.

Asked what they learned, students mentioned such things as communicating your intention and making eye contact. One who “zipped” when he should have “zopped” said, “Pay attention.”

“Exactly,” Noel said. “Part of what improvisation teaches us about businesses is paying attention.”

He said not listening is bad in improvisation, bad in personal relationships and bad in business.

The final exercise, called long-form improvisation, involved a large group of students, including some who just walked through the background or added sounds off-stage.

“You are not out there to make yourself look good,” Noel said. “The idea is, you are supporting what they’re doing.”

It was like the role many will play in their first jobs.

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/1BRt6SF

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Information from: The Pantagraph, https://www.pantagraph.com

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