Improv and Content Strategy

The following guest post was written by Amanda Costello, Lead Content Strategist at the University of Minnesota, College of Education and Human Development.

Tina Fey's "Bossypants" with books content strategy books.

Add Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” to your content strategy bookshelf.

Collaboration and listening are at the heart of both improv comedy and content strategy.

You might have seen improv on stage or on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” In improv, while it doesn’t hurt to have a mind stuffed with trivia or an ear for a good pun, you must listen to your fellow actors; they’re literally all that’s on stage with you! Listening — and the collaboration that results from it — creates cohesion so the audience will believe in the scene and come along for the ride.

Likewise, content strategy, especially in higher education, is never a completely solo endeavor. While you may not be part of a strategy team, you depend on others for the content itself, for insight into audiences and communities, for institutional knowledge and history, as well as for that sudden snappy idea that shakes you out of a rut and propels the project forward.

You and the people you work with in higher ed are all bringing your skills and know-how to the table for an audience: your users.

In academia, an industry famous for egos and snarly politics, listening and collaboration build the trust and goodwill for everyone involved to do their best work and make a difference.

I practiced improv for about a year after college and found tremendous value in it personally and (later) professionally, working at the University of Minnesota. Time and again in the office I have relied on the basics of improv, and I list it on my resume in the skills section. Here’s a quick lowdown of those basics and how they can make your work rock a bit harder.

Exciting note: The following rules are from Tina Fey’s book “Bossypants,” which is a memoir but also an excellent business book. Plus, Fey offers succinct and clear overviews of all of the standard rules of improv. As you will see, I quote from the book below. Because Tina Fey is that awesome.

1. Say Yes (The Rule of Agreement)

“The Rule of Agreement,” Fey says, “reminds you to ‘respect what your partner has created’ and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.” If someone in an improv scene says they have a shovel in their hands, it’s a shovel. You can’t change it to a fish just because you think it might work better or is more interesting to you. If a faculty member tells me they’ve done work research with pre-teens, I can’t start speculating on what the research might look like with older teens; it’s already been done!

In higher ed, most of my work is project-based, like getting a new site together to connect faculty research to the community or reworking existing sites so they serve users better. I work at the college level, and my projects almost always involve a subject matter expert (research faculty!) whose ideas about the web and how their content relates to it could be rock solid or never explored.

If you start a new web content project with faculty, you may feel that you’re beginning with a clean slate, but that’s not the case. The faculty member involved is usually bringing research to the table — research that is new or updated or older but still sound and relevant. Research never just “happens,” and research in higher ed is a lot more complex and often more fraught with peril than you’d realize from the get-go.

This is where the Rule of Agreement shows up: right at the beginning. Recognize what’s already been created and say “yes” to it. As for stuff that comes after that (like “We need to be on Facebook, but we don’t have a name for the project!”), well …

2. Say “Yes, and …”

The Rule of Agreement actually has two parts, not just to say “yes” but also to say “Yes, and …” Here’s Tina Fey’s take on the phrase: “To me ‘yes, and’ means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your input is worthwhile.”

In improv, you need to add things to a scene, both to give it depth and to give other actors things to build on. Fey’s example in the book involves someone shouting, “I have a gun!” and her responding, “The gun I gave you for Christmas!” Now things are interesting since a Christmas gun (and a Christmas gun-giving relationship) is part of the picture.

Because we work with the web, content professionals are often simplified as “the web person” who will “put things up.” Wrongo. We’ve got a huge set of valuable skills that are critical for project success, and that’s what we add to the “scene.”

While your knowledge and expertise are likely quite different from that of subject matter experts (in this case, faculty or administrators), they’re still necessary for the project to go forward — otherwise you wouldn’t be in the room. (This is also a great case for why you need to be in the room from the start.)

3. Make Statements

“Whatever the problem, be part of the solution,” says Fey on this third rule. “Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag.”

If you’ve ever dealt with a pre-schooler, you know how exhausting it can be to answer non-stop questions. The same is true in improv; when someone responds with only questions, that puts the burden of the scene on the other actors, and everything drags to a halt. Instead of responding to “We’re going to the beach!” with “When? Why?,” jumping in with a statement moves things forward: “Excellent! My pet raccoon Julius loves the seaside.”

Any new project necessarily raises a lot of questions — Who is this for and not for? What’s the project’s name? Are there other projects like this? — but at a certain point you need to act. You need to make statements instead of just asking questions.

Faculty members working with the web will often balk at putting things online too quickly, asking for revisions, checks and maybe an extra committee review for good measure. Everyone’s had a project that gets mired in a cycle of endless debate and questions, and it stinks to watch well-intentioned work die a slow death through never-scheduled meetings.

What faculty members need is reassurance. Although something is getting published, publishing content online is different than publishing a book or journal article. Sometimes a simple reassurance that online content can be changed is enough comfort. Breaking away from the permanency of print to the (comparative) malleability of the web can be very freeing — but you’ve got to pull the trigger.

So … what next?

A good improv actor advocates for the audience through listening and collaboration with colleagues, and a good content strategist is an advocate for the user in the same way. The content we deal with touches people’s lives: their research, their education, their pasts and their futures. Even in new institutions, we have centuries of tradition and expectations towering around education; to do good work, we must be nimble and keep our ears open.

If you’re interested in improv, there are a lot of awesome improv resources online — Improv Encyclopedia, for example, has games, a glossary and references — but the best way to get comfortable is by doing it! Improv troupes around the world have branched out into offering classes and training. Intro improv classes are meant for all kinds of folks, and many have only a small performance component (if they have one at all), so no worries about stage fright. Google “improv comedy” and the name of the city or town that’s nearest to you to find troupes.

Photo Credit: Amanda Costello.

About Amanda Costello

Amanda Costello is the lead content strategist in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). She has worked for the University in various departments since 2002, and joined CEHD in 2007. She is also the director of MinneWebCon, a grassroots knowledge-sharing web conference in Minnesota. A former English teacher in Japan, she values clear communication and having a plan (plus a couple of back-ups). Amanda is an award-winning speaker (catch her at Confab Higher Ed 2013 in November) and enjoys filling out forms because it feels like taking a test where she knows all the answers.

  • RSS
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook


  1. Amanda, this is amazing advice! “Yes…and!” is such a great and positive takeaway to keep in the front of my brain, especially when I see things that make me instinctively want to shout, “NOOOOOO!”

    Thank you for this!

    • Amanda Costello says:

      Thanks so much, Eric! Sometimes it’s rough to stay positive, or even answer positively, when an idea strikes you as awful – glad this helped.

What do you think?