“That will never work” “We don’t have time for that” “This is too important” “It’s too much trouble” “We tried that once before” “That’s too risky” “Because I said so” “It’s just the way we do things around here”

How many times have we heard or read or written or said things like these?  Perhaps you are already numb to it. Or you have accepted your fate.  Or there’s justification as to why in this situation, that’s the way it has to be.    What’s interesting to me is that in my 20 years as a business, creative and communications professional, who has been in hundreds of corporate environments across a broad spectrum of industries, what I’ve found is that most people recognize this kind of negativity, but don’t associate it with themselves.  It’s unconscious.  I’m not that way, but oh gawd, Susan is! (Note: in this example Susan = your boss or co-worker or the powers that be.  Apologies to the Susans reading)  People have trouble recognizing their own behavior.  Or we do recognize it and don’t feel empowered to do anything about it. Or perhaps we just choose not to fight.  And then we find ourselves living in a corporate culture that bores us to tears.  We spend most of our work lives in an environment that doesn’t represent who we are as interesting, creative individuals.  I find it fascinating how we separate or disassociate ourselves from our ability to influence our environment.  I believe

Negativity is like yawns…it rapidly spread from one person to the next and it’s your responsibility to break the chain.

Think of “Yes” as the gas and “No” as the breaks. “No” stops action.  It’s safer.  It also kills creativity and stops ideas, both good and bad, from advancing.  “No” in it’s many forms is at the root of the problem.  We can’t control everything, but we can control how we choose to communicate. This applies to one-on-one conversations, emails, small group presentations, webinars, conference calls, speeches, trainings, policies, documents, posters, newsletters and company-wide communications. Each form of communication can be positive, interesting, often creative and fun.  And these things have the power to affect those around us.

Corporate culture can be affected by how each of us chooses to communicate.

I was at a conference, pontificating about corporate communications and the importance of “tone-from-the-top” and creating “mood-in-the-middle,” when the Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer at a Fortune 500 aerospace and defense company, says this to me. “You realize that there is no such thing as corporate culture.  We’re actually dealing with thousands of mini corporate cultures that vary depending on the country, work environment, office and manager. Basically if you like and respect your boss you have a good corporate culture and if you don’t you have a bad corporate culture.”  The simplicity of this stopped me in my tracks and changed my opinion about the subject.  He was right.  The lesson here isn’t that there’s not much we can do if your boss is a jerk-wad.  Or that corporate wide initiatives don’t have an effect.  It’s the opposite.  We all have an active hand in shaping our own immediate culture.  And if you’re in leadership (or want to be) or happen to be in a job function that touches a broad part of the organization – learning, compliance, communications, HR, talent development, etc. – then you have an even greater ability to affect change.  You are responsible.  You have the power to affect the person or groups in front of you.  You can’t change negativity, but you can change how you react to it.   You can’t make everyone think the way you do, but you can bring energy, creativity, empathy and passion.  The good news is, there are many tools at your disposal to help you improve how you communicate as an individual and how you communicate across the organization.

I happen to have spent much of my career in the improv, comedy and theater community, and have found many effective tools that can be adopted in the workplace.  Here are a few that can help you be a more effective communicator.


Individual Communications – Tips from the world of Improv

Improvisation is not just about the funny.  It is the craft of creating something out of nothing, in the moment, off the top of your head, in collaboration with others, quickly, confidently and without fear of failure.  These are skills actors use on stage and can be learned to help you be a more effective communicator and build trust.  These are muscles that can be exercised, that require practice.  Here are a few improv tenets and philosophies to try to adopt.

  • Practice Active Listening – listen to understand, don’t wait to talk. This is harder than you think. Practice listening all the way to the very end.  Pause, absorb, and then formulate a response. Everybody loves a good listener.
  • Stay in the Moment – Don’t think about what happened 10 minutes ago and what might happen 10 minutes from now. Apply yourself to the person in front of you and the task at hand.  Play the scene you are in, not the one you want to be in.
  • Be Others Focused – some say improv is the art of being others focused. Don’t think about yourself.  Think about making your partner look good. Put yourself in service of their needs and they are more likely to respond in kind.
  • Say “Yes, And” – in this context, don’t think of the “yes” as agreement, but rather affirmation and validation.  I’m listening…I hear you…I understand.  The “And” is there to help you build on the conversation positively.  Exercise: Try to go one whole day without saying “no.”
  • Bring a Brick not a Cathedral – Add one thought, one idea, one comment or solution. Then pause and allow others to contribute.  This is a lesson in collaboration.  You may know more, but you can go further when you allow space for others.  It empowers them.  You also might learn something new or find unexpected connections and solutions.
  • Say Thank You – Try silently saying “thank you” before responding. This is a lesson in being grateful for information, regardless of what it is.  It can help you have what might have been a difficult conversation in a positive way. “Thank you” can help take you from the emotion of the topic to a more thoughtful productive response.


Group Communications and Presentations

There are many improvisational and theatrical techniques that can be utilized to help you avoid boring podium speeches, dull webinars and “death by PowerPoint.”

  • Involve Your Audience – improv works in part because the audience is a contributing partner in the show. Ask questions, utilize polling, create little competitions and games.  Make them do something.  Interactivity leads to engagement and learning transfer.
  • Embrace Failure – Everybody screws up. It’s how you react to it that defines you.  People crave authenticity.  Mistakes are interesting.  Acknowledge, move on, and utilize them to your advantage.
  • Utilize Entertaining Formats – Wrap your messaging in fun forms. Hosted “Talk Show” style Interviews vs. lectures.  Interactive “Game Shows” vs. lists.  Show with videos, visuals and cartoons vs. tell with slides.
  • Embrace Storytelling – don’t just tell the what, tell the why. Use specifics.  Stories are filled with colorful characters, heroes and villains and anecdotes that paint a picture, all of which can help you make an emotional connection with your audience.
  • Bring Energy – Energy is contagious. Let your personality out.  Be interesting!  Newsflash…you can’t bore people into learning.


Corporate Communications

Utilize the communication vehicles, storytelling devices and media that people use to consume information in their every day lives and apply them in the workplace.  If it’s important, you need employees to pay attention and remember.  Humor and entertainment are great ways to socialize learning. Here are some fun devices to help get your corporate messaging noticed.

  • Movie Trailers & Fake Commercials – to introduce new corporate policies
  • Songs and Music – to highlight values and themes
  • Scenic Videos – right way, wrong way videos to highlight behaviors and teachable moments
  • Podcasts – with featured guests to share best practices across the organization
  • Gifs & Memes – to highlight and reinforce key messaging
  • Top-Ten-Lists & Listicles– to surround rules and policies to make them more memorable


Remember that we’re business people some of the time and regular people-people all of the time.  People like to have fun.  People like to learn new things.  We don’t have to accept dull, boring communications as the norm.  It’s ineffective and nobody likes it. You don’t have to shut out your creativity the moment you clock in.

Regular, positive, proactive, empathetic communications are the gateway to improving corporate culture. 

We all have the power to make a difference to the people and tasks in front of us which will ultimately improve the culture around us.