Bylistening300 John Freund —

I hadn’t performed improv comedy for several years prior to taking a class at the People’s Improv Theater in New York, so, needless to say, I was a little rusty.  In my first scene I did what most novice improv performers do – I talked.  A LOT.

Improv is all about creation; you create everything in a scene – who you are, where you are, what you’re doing.  It’s up to you as the performer to create the entire scene because there’s nothing on that stage except for you, your partner, and maybe a couple of chairs.  So naturally, most first-timers nervously try to get out as much information as possible instead of focusing on their scene partner and working as a team to push the scene forward

I still remember that first scene – the suggestion was either ‘ice skating’ or ‘skating rink,’ and me and my partner both began skating around.  My gut instinct told me to explain what we were doing there, so I blurted out some line about us being on a date.  My partner – a 19 year old girl totally new to improv – was even more nervous than I was and pretty much just went along with whatever I said.  I started racing around the imaginary skating rink doing flips and spins to impress my date.  Then I introduced a hockey stick and hockey puck (from out of nowhere) and started playing hockey.  Of course my partner – being my date in the scene – wanted a romantic evening at the skating rink, so we got into a silly argument over whether we should skate or play hockey.

Basically, the scene sucked.  Each of us was just blurting out whatever dumb idea we thought of next.  One of us introduced a Zamboni (because, you know, they have Zambonis at skating rinks… and ‘zamboni’ is kind of a funny word to say), but it had nothing to do with the scene.  I think at one point my partner hit the puck with her hockey stick and I did a pratfall as if it struck me in the face.  No one laughed.  I don’t blame them… it wasn’t very funny.

After class I approached the teacher and asked what he thought of my scene.  “Not bad.  You have good energy up there,” he said.  I reminded him that I had performed improv for years and had a much higher standard for myself, so he didn’t need to go easy on me.  “You need to listen more,” he said.  “Right now you’re not listening.  You’re too focused on getting information out.  Take in your partner, relax, enjoy the moment, and forget all the other stuff.  Just listen and respond.”

So that’s what I did.  The very next class I was in a scene where my partner and I were visiting a sacred religious temple.  This time, instead of frantically trying to explain and justify every single aspect of the scene – like who we were and what we were doing there – I relaxed and focused on my partner.

My partner did the same, and we instinctively smiled at each other.  She began the scene by saying something to the effect of “oh honey, this is such a wonderful idea for a honeymoon.”  Great!  She had just defined our relationship and what we were doing at the sacred temple.  It’s a little expository, but not a bad opening line.  If I had been given that type of line in the ice skating scene, I would have ran with it and either spat out more exposition or created a bunch of objects for us to mess around with.  But not this time.  This time I followed my teacher’s advice.  I took in my partner and let her opening statement resonate (‘let it land’ in improv-spe

In short, I listened.

Instead of rushing to speak, I just walked over to an imaginary statue, bowed down in front of it, and prayed in some quasi-religious language that was a mix of Japanese and Pig-Latin.  Everyone in the class laughed.  And guess what?  We now had a scene.  Every time my partner commented on how romantic some part of the temple was, I used it in a ritualistic fashion as though it were a sacred part of whatever cultish religion I belonged to.  We heightened and heightened until she asked if we could renew our wedding vows at the altar.  That’s when I tied her down, took out a knife, and began to sacrifice her alive, which of course she found soooo romantic.

Listening is one of the most powerful, socially confident things you can do.  To listen is to embrace silence.  And silence is an opportunity for judgment.  That’s why extremely neurotic types are always talking, talking, talking… it’s a defense mechanism against being judged.  By speaking, they’re forcing you to listen.  And if you’re brain is busy listening and recording their speech, what’s it not doing?  That’s right – judging them.

Of course the irony is that we ultimately do judge them, once they’re done talking our heads off.  Jeez, that guy talks fast.  He never shuts up…!

Fast-talking betrays one’s insecurity.  If you want to appear confident, just listen.  For if we are truly confident, then we don’t mind being judged.  We don’t get our self-esteem from others, after all.  We get it from ourselves.  Thus the confident among us can stand in front of others – in conversation or on stage – and embrace silence.  To quiet the chattering mind, listen, and respond, is the ultimate expression of confidence.

Try it some time.  There’s power in silence, I promise you…

is an author and improv comedian.  He performs regularly at the People’s Improv Theater in New York.  His first e-book, ‘Fake it with Confidence:  How to use Improv Comedy to be More Confident in Social Situations’ is available on Amazon:  John lives and writes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and is currently searching for the world’s cutest French Bulldog puppy to be his new best friend

Editor’s note: If you liked this you’ll love the book

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