I’m on a group text with a bunch of friends. I’m sure you know these. They ping in meetings and blow up while you’re on the treadmill. You put your phone down, and twenty minutes later, you have 47 new message alerts. Last week, when the county health department decided to close all of our schools, that text thread went wild. My friends were experiencing a mix of panic and relief. Some wondered why it took so long to make the decision; others worried about how to keep their kids occupied.
The COVID-19 crisis has caused incredible stress and harm across the world. This stands to reason, given a few of this virus’s (called SARS-CoV-2) more frightening features: it’s very new virus; the disease masquerades as the flu or a cold; it’s easily and quickly transmitted; and, of course, we have no cure and no vaccine.
When the text messages started to come, I had to make choices about how to respond. I’m a teacher and researcher who studies communication training methods for scientists and physicians. I’ve also been consulting with our medical school and other health officials over the past few weeks about how to talk about COVID-19. Based on the texts from my friends, some experts were communicating better than others.
Although my training in communication and rhetoric serve me well in these contexts, I often rely upon the principles of improvisational theater (or improv, for short) to teach the mindsets needed to truly develop effective and empathetic messages. Scientists and physicians can learn much from these principles, whether their focus is on managing the unknown or acknowledging the expertise of others to improve our efforts.
When most people think of improv, they think of comedy, as in the television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? Or, they think of the famous theater group in Chicago, The Second City, which hatched the careers of famous comedians like John Belushi, Tina Fey, and Jordan Peele. However, improv isn’t just for comedy. Viola Spolin, the theater artist and educator who is considered the mother of improv in the United States, didn’t set out to use improv to make people laugh. Spolin was a student of Neva Boyd, an American sociologist. Together, they worked with Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, providing educational opportunities for working class people and immigrants in the surrounding neighborhood. Boyd and Spolin’s work teaches us that there is much to be learned about ourselves and one another by leaning into, rather than resisting, the unknown. And, few scenarios have more unknowns than a new virus, spreading rapidly across the world.
Applying improv isn’t new.
Theater artists have been applying the principles of improv for many years. In fact, there is a professional organization, the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN), dedicated to these efforts. According to their website, “[a]pplied improvisation uses the principles, tools, practices, skills and mind-sets developed in comedy, jazz and theatre and utilizes them for non-theatrical or performance purposes.”
Instructors and trainers have used applied improv to teach collaboration, creativity, and communication. In fact, Dr. Barbra Tint, the current president of AIN has studied the use of applied improv in disaster relief contexts. My colleagues and I at Indiana University have studied these techniques to teach biomedical PhD students and medical residents how to communicate in policy and advocacy contexts. And, many scientists are familiar with the research and training of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. These research studies indicate that improv techniques can increase scientists’ willingness to and confidence in their ability to communicate with the general public.
Improv, Communication, and COVID-19
Obviously, a new, unknown virus is scary for everyone. For many leaders, I think their impulse is to minimize panic and fear. For people in the United States, the virus’s spread from Asia and Europe adds unknown elements, because Americans don’t travel as frequently as those from other parts of the world. For many Americans who have never visited other cultures, the experiences of people in China, South Korea, and Italy can seem very different than the United States.
In the past few days, I’ve read and written countless emails and frequently asked questions documents aimed at quelling the concerns of an ever-nervous public. These messages have a few things in common. There’s no script; we don’t have the answers to many questions; and the minute they are written, they will be outdated. With so much uncertainty, my goal is always to communicate accurate information at a level my audience understands. And that is the rub with COVID-19, we just don’t know enough about the science to communicate with absolute certainty.
However, there are some things we do know. Washing your hands, not touching your face, physically distancing yourself from others, and staying home if you’re sick all can help. However, with more people quarantining at home, a steady diet of news consumption won’t make you feel better. With these truths in mind, I offer a few principles of improv, applied to the context of communicating complex information with the general public.
A little empathy goes a long way.
Empathy is a key tenet of improv. The focus is on listening closely and tuning your attention to your scene partner’s experience. Crisis communication is the same: communicating with empathy is considered a best practice. I once read meme that said, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.” Simply telling someone what to feel will not change their perceptions or behavior. Further, the science of science communication supports the notion that simply providing more and more accurate information also will not change behavior.
Instead, audiences respond when they can see themselves in your communication; said simply, your audience wants to “feel felt.” For scientists and physicians that means acknowledging the inconvenience and frustration associated with quarantining. It’s also powerful and helpful to simply say what you did and how you’d approach the situation. For example, “You have to weigh the risks and do what’s right for your family. For us, we just felt more confident canceling all our playdates.”
Make your scene partner look good.
Another tenet of improv focuses on the idea that there is no “star” of the show; it’s every actor’s job to make their scene partner look good. When communicating about something as serious as global pandemic, it’s easy to get frustrated and lose focus on the big goal.
When you get frustrated because a patient or member of the public is missing your message or dismissing your scientific information, try to “make your scene partner look good.” Try to focus communication on the values, passions, or concerns you share. You likely both want to keep people safe, healthy, and happy. Although the approaches you take might be different, focusing on what you share can often help you come to a place of common ground.
But what can you do if your scene partner refuses to make you look good, or continues to make you look bad? Here’s where improvisers can help again; we accept the reality our scene partners give us, even if we don’t like it. However, that doesn’t mean sharing false information or allowing negative behavior to continue. Rather, approach the conversation from a place of inquiry. A question like, “Tell me more about how you came to that conclusion?” can go a long way. Did they read incorrect information? Trust a family member more than a physician or scientist? If you can understand the context, you can often come back to that place of shared values.
Function together, as an ensemble, to solve problems.
The first afternoon we got word our university was switching to online education, my colleague and I just happened to be in a face-to-face meeting together. The dean asked us to write a message to all of our 1,500 faculty designed to show support and offer resources. With minimal interruption, we banged out a good draft and a plan for distribution in just under an hour. Though the message wasn’t perfect, I was proud of what we were able to accomplish in a short amount of time.
In improv, Spolin often speaks of the “ensemble,” a group of improvisers who function so seamlessly together that they feed off and support one another. The group hits a collaborative flow-state, like what I experienced with my colleague writing that message. Ensemble members know what one another is good at and amplify one another’s talents. This kind of connection comes from a mix of adrenaline, hyper-focus, and trust—three things that are hard to get in a crisis environment. However, there are things you can do to help create it. If you’re trying to write something or solve a problem with a colleague, turn your email off, set a timer, and silence your inner-critic.
Mistakes are opportunities to try again.
If there is anything improv has taught me, it’s that mistakes will happen. It’s not a matter of if, but when. The same is true in crisis communication. Missteps will happen. Our job, as ethical communicators, is to acknowledge mistakes and try again. This type of iterative practice is often experienced when students learn in a game-based environments, sometimes called “serious games.”
Boyd and Spolin both framed their approach to teaching in the context of games. Why? Because, they believed that the immersive experience of games brought a new type of learning. Spolin explained, “Out of this integrated [game] experience, then a total self in a total environment, comes a support and thus trust which allows the individual to open up and develop any skills that may be needed for the communication within the game” (Spolin, 1999, p. 4).
Now, don’t get me wrong. This global pandemic is anything but a game. But, Boyd and Spolin weren’t just having fun either. They worked with immigrants in communities facing extraordinary discrimination and strife. In short, the games allowed participants to be fully present in the moment. By taking the improv mindset of “mistakes are opportunities,” you allow yourself the grace and confidence needed to respond to the next issue at hand.
You don’t have time for an acting class.
So many of the problems we have faced within the COVID-19 crisis are not about health or science, they are about communication. Do audiences believe the information we’re sharing? Do people trust public health officials? Things are changing so rapidly, how do we take back something we said an hour ago? While you certainly don’t have time for an improv class right now, you can use these ideas as a lens through which to communicate.
In fact, most of what I’m advocating for here is a shift in how we think about communicating science, especially during a time of crisis. These principles are designed to really focus on being kind to ourselves, being kind to one another, and giving the benefit of the doubt.
Some people are naturally better at communicating, no matter how stressful the situation. We certainly can’t be expected to be at our best, especially when so much is uncertain. However, I have to believe good communication can be learned. Like playing an instrument or a sport, the more you employ these principles, the better you’ll become.