Improv via Zoom for Teams: Laughing during COVID

improv May 22, 2020

“Only the wild ones give you something and never want it back” -Dispatch

It’s my turn. My mind is racing. I’m waiting for the CEO to give me a prompt. Yes, the CEO. Here it comes: “Nick, name three things… the hobbits forgot to bring on their journey to Mordor?”

A typical Monday morning at my company.

Improv is a sacred ritual. Nowhere else do I laugh so heartily, trust so deeply, and fail so effortlessly. The power lies in combining factors proven to improve health and happiness: laughter, using your mind, and positive engagement with others. It gets my creative juices flowing, since creativity is about the suspension of disbelief, putting two things together, looking for connections, and releasing negativity to explore. Improv forces me to be fully present in the moment, and that is refreshing.

At DataFleets, we do team improv over Zoom. We are a remote-first organization, and our global crew of engineers and data scientists start our weekly all-hands meeting with improv. It lowers the stakes of interacting with teammates, and every team member has spoken and laughed before the meeting begins. During COVID-19, we cling to this ritual. Now that Twitter, Facebook, and other organizations are going remote (welcome!), there are more improvisers than ever sitting at home ready for improv via Zoom.

This blog post focuses on games your team can play because I believe we need praxis, defined as “the exercise or practice of an art, science, or skill.” Like meditation and yoga, improv is about being and doing, about creating your own moments that can never be replicated again in history. That levity is especially meaningful in the face of a dark chapter in history like a pandemic. As a startup founder, finding my praxis means that I still do improv with my team after I’ve had Ben Horowitz style night-sweats. It means I do improv after I’ve been Brenee Brown-level vulnerability slapped all week. Those moments of genuine, raw risk are what turn improv from a game into a team oasis and a ritual. You do it especially when things are difficult.

Dick Costolo — former CEO of Twitter — commented:

“Improv taught me to think on my feet, trust my teammates, and to listen. Doing improv over Zoom is genius, and we need it during this current crisis. Improv gets us over a fear of failure, forces us outside our comfort zone, and infuses levity into our work-from-home lives. Highly, highly recommend.”

We’re recommending two of our favorite Zoom-adapted improv games below. We hope you will continue the tradition even after the COVID-19 crisis.

With love,

Nick @ DataFleets

Send us a shoutout @datafleets on Twitter

Special thanks to Stanford lecturer Debra Schifrin, and the Stanford Archuckle Fellows


Tutorial: doing improv over Zoom

Suitable for 2–15 people. If more, use breakout rooms feature.

For both games:

  • Post a list of participants in the group chat. This is the order. Numbered lists are useful for large groups, especially if participants are unfamiliar with one another (“who is Joe again?”).
  • Remind everyone to speak loud and proud into their microphone and turn their cameras on
  • Don’t Think Twice! Move quickly and with energy, while still being respectful
  • Use words and cultural references everyone in the group will understand

Watch the video of Three Things and Wise Sayings at the top of the blog for examples!


Game 1: Three Things

  • The first person on the list will ask the second person, “Name three ______ that _____” such as “Name three things that you might find in New York”
  • The second person will respond with their list of three things that (more or less) answers the question. Answers do not need to be ‘correct’ or ‘true’.
  • After all three have been said, everyone in the group chants THREE THINGS. Video sometimes lags, so just say it quickly and don’t try to sync with other people.
  • Then, the second person asks the next (third) person on the list to “Name three ______ that _____” and so on.

Example:

Order = Habib, Charlotte, Juan

  • Habib: Charlotte, name three things that don’t fly.
  • Charlotte: Toothpaste, faulty broomsticks, and airlines during a pandemic
  • Everyone: THREE THINGS
  • Charlotte: Juan, name three places you’d like to be today.
  • Juan: A yoga class, on the beach, on the moon.
  • Everyone: THREE THINGS
  • Juan: Habib, name three terrible names for a pet
  • Habib: Grandma, Tennis Racket, My Soulmate
  • Everyone: THREE THINGS

After you finish, you can up the stakes to five things.

Top learnings from Three Things:

  1. Spontaneity
  2. Creativity
  3. Presence

Game 2: Wise Sayings

  • Each person says one word. Each of these words builds a wise saying.
  • When anyone in the group feels that the wise saying is complete, they whisper “Yes, yes ,yes, yes, yes”. As soon as one person starts saying it, everyone joins in.
  • The next person kicks off the next phrase with a single word.
  • Speak slowly and clearly to ensure everyone hears your word.

Example:

  • Habib: I
  • Charlotte: believe
  • Juan: in
  • Chris: Elvis
  • Eitan: because
  • Habib: my
  • Charlotte: flying
  • Juan: mouse
  • Chris: is
  • Eitan: vegan
  • All: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes

Top learnings from wise sayings:

  1. Listening
  2. Teamwork
  3. Equality

Enjoy! If you found this useful or have other games you play with your teams send us a shoutout to @datafleets on Twitter

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