3 Job Interviewing Lessons from Improv


Art credit: Neena Varscona

Art credit: Neena Varscona


Right now, I’m a freelancer, and as such, I’ve been without normal, full-time employment for nine months — by far the longest period of my adult life. (Though to be fair, I was unemployed from ages 0 to 16, a period during which Mitt Romney would’ve labeled me a “taker.”)

In the last three months, I’ve been had about 20 interviews. Some of them turned into job offers, all of which I’ve turned down for one reason or another. Some of the interviews got all the way to the final round, but then I was edged out by another candidate. A couple of the interviews stopped cold when the phone interview revealed that it just wasn’t a good fit.

My point: I know how job interviews work these days. And I can attribute my high success rate in both landing interview and getting offers to a few key lessons that I learned directly from improv.

1. Don’t Care About the Job

By far my best improv performances come when I’m unattached to the outcome—in short, when I simply do not care how “well” I perform. And when I say I don’t care, I mean I do. not. care. If I go onstage and do or say something stupid—something that earns me complete silence from the audience—I couldn’t care less. Because I care zero. And there’s nothing less than zero.

Conversely, when I go onstage with tension coursing through my bones—which I’d say is about 80% of the time—my improv is necessarily worse. Now, I think I’m talented enough to fight through some of that tension, to put on a reasonably entertaining performance despite my anxiety and worry, but it’s a real struggle, and savvier audience members can see right through it.

For example: Last weekend, I won Maestro while doing some of the best improv I’ve done in agesI attribute my success to not caring. I’d sworn off playing in Maestro, because the last three or four times I’d played, I’d hated the experience. Maestro had stopped being fun to me. But I was itching for some stage time, so I decided to give it one more shot. “If this show sucks,” I told myself, “I’m taking a year off. No Maestros for a year for me.”

And so when I showed up on Saturday night to warm up, I was actively suspicious of the show. I told my buddy, Ryan, that I was going to try to get eliminated first by doing over-the-top improv that surely nobody could like. And two hours later, after doing three or four really solid scenes, I’d won.

Now, I know that it’s far easier not to care about an individual improv performance than whether you’ll get that kick-ass job you have your eye on. Your bank account is dwindling, your sense of self is taking a hit everyday, and you want to be a productive, money-earning member of society again. I get it. That pressure is naturally going to get to you.

But you simply must divorce yourself from the outcome. Doing so achieves three key results:

a. You show the interviewer yourself.

While constructing a façade might—might—sneak you into a job offer, you’ll soon be discovered as a fraud. Your personality will leak out and you’ll be skating a thin ice right away. It’s far better to get offered a job by someone who’s seen the real you.

b. You set yourself apart.

I’ve been on the interviewer side of the table enough times in my career to know that 95% of candidates are identical. They’ve done the same research (almost none); they’ve prepared the same answers to the tried-and-true questions; they all say “that’s a good question!” to every question you ask. And guess who usually gets hired? The 5% of candidates who set themselves apart.

The quickest way to set yourself apart is to be yourself, which you can only fully do if you’re not obsessed with nailing every answer and appearing like the perfect candidate.

c. You have more fun.

tried to get eliminated in Maestro by being over-the-top, saying and doing the very first thing that came to mind, letting go and being fully in the moment. When you’re running the job interview gauntlet, you can get sick of hearing yourself say the same things over and over. It’s boring. And trust me, most interviewers—most, though certainly not the HR representatives, who are simply the worst—are clever enough to sense your automated boredom. Have fun with them. Tell jokes that occur to you. Be honest, even if you think it makes you look bad.

HAVE FUN, kids. This isn’t life or death. It’s job hunting. And while it may feel like life and death sometimes; it isn’t. It just isn’t.

2. Prepare Wisely

“But, Andrew,” you say, “you just told us not to care about the outcome! How can you now tell us to prepare wisely?”

They’re not mutually exclusive, I retort! The best improvisers—not the funniest people, but the best improvisers—are well prepared. They’ve taken a ton of classes and workshops, usually. They go to improv jams regularly. They read books and show up on time for rehearsals. They talk shop with their fellow improvisers.

They internalize the fundamentals of improv so that they can then, onstage, stop thinking and just go. They’re so awash in improv techniques and philosophy that they don’t have to think about while performing; they can just be.

Take the same approach to your job search. Do absurd amounts of research on the company. Read more than their website. Read news articles, press releases, online reviews. Go back longer than a month or two. See what they were up to a year ago, two years ago, five. Do the same research about the person hiring you. Where did she go to school? How long has she been in her current role? What has she said on social media or blogs about the company?

Spend a few hours doing this research. Take some key notes along the way. Read through it all twice. And then … and then … let it go. Don’t try to incorporate your new know-how into every move you make during the interview. Find comfort and confidence in the depth of your knowledge, and then just have a frank conversation. Adult to adult.

Because remember, the name of the game is “differentiation.” Your main job in the interview is to stand apart from the other candidates—as someone they’d be OK sitting next to everyday and someone who seems smart and eager. The quickest way to do this is to create a bedrock of knowledge about the job/company, and then being the affable, wonderfully clever, fun person you really are.

3. Hear, Don’t Just Listen

We talk a lot about “listening” in improv. Of course we do: it’s critical! If you don’t listen to your scene partners, well, you don’t know what you’re suppose to “yes and” to.

But anybody with one working ear canal can listen. It takes a dedicated person to hear.

When you’re onstage, you’re going to create far more compelling scenes—read: emotionally engaging and funny—if you first listen, then hear. And by “hear” I mean read the subtext. When your scene partner says, “I’m going to go to church tomorrow,” perhaps they’re really saying, “I want to find religion!” or “You’re a heathen for not going to church!” or something else entirely. Rarely, even in improv, is what we say 100% of what we mean. But it’s a critical clue to what we mean, and if someone’s open to hearing us, then they’ve got our attention.

Same goes for an interviewer. When the interviewer asks, “Tell me about a time you worked with a team to accomplish a goal,” what they’re really asking is, “Are you a weirdo loner?” or “Are you all talk and no action?” or “Can you even remember professional accomplishments you’ve had?”—or some combination of all of these.

If you answer the question they’re really asking, even if you ostensibly ignoring the surface question they’re asking, you’re going to nab their attention and further differentiate yourself.

As I wrote this, another four or five improv-based lessons for job hunting occurred to me, and perhaps I’ll put those in another post. But for now, I’m curious: What improv lessons do you think are applicable to searching for a new job?

And all this said, if you want to hire me, I’d encourage you to do so. Here’s my résumé.

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