Whose Conference Is It Anyway?

I’ve consumed countless hours of improv comedy, from podcasts like My Brother, My Brother and Me and My Favorite Murder to live performances. But while I’ve enjoyed being an audience to improv techniques, I’ve never thought about throwing my hat in the ring. It turns out, however, that improv skills can be applied to other environments and may even be useful in helping us survive graduate school. Shira Lurie has a particularly good take on this with Inside Higher Ed, but the benefits of improv have been touted by many. 

According to the Improv Social Skills Group at Vanderbilt University, improv techniques can help if you “feel unable to break into a conversation without feeling your face is on fire, or if you just wonder if your conversational skills are holding you back from better engagement on social or academic levels.” If “breaking into a conversation” and “conversational skills are holding you back” don’t describe two of my most deep-set phobias as a grad student, then I don’t know what does.

Kathleen Toohill, a journalist with The Atlantic, describes the improv stage as “a space free of judgment or fear of failure, making it an ideal environment for people who struggle with low self-esteem, social anxiety, or other types of anxiety disorders.” While the end of Toohill’s description may apply to many people, nowhere is it more applicable than in the imposter-syndrome-ridden land of graduate school. Toohill also describes how Kristin Krueger, a neuropsychologist and improv artist, was drawn to improv comedy “because it isn’t about ‘getting it right’—a liberating departure from the pressures of a life in academia.”

All of these are interesting points and reasons to consider embracing improv techniques in our grad student lives. But I think these skills can be applied to the larger realm of academia. In particular, using the principles of improv comedy may help the conference experience.

Yes, and…

The central tenet of improv, the “yes, and…” principle ensures that you first accept what someone else has said and then build off of it, adding on your own information. By its very nature, “yes, and…” is collaborative and inclusive, encouraging practitioners not to shoot down ideas but to find what you think is good or true in a statement and use that as a springboard rather than dismissing the point entirely.

Academia is a world that has built itself around the idea of critique — from in-class exercises evaluating reading to dissertation feedback from your advisor to response essays in popular journals. Marrying critique with the “yes, and…” may initially seem difficult, leaving as it does little room for disagreement. Lurie points out that the important point for academics may be the “and” — disagreeing and critiquing can be improved by offering up suggestions and your own ideas. “The ‘Yes, and’ principle,” Lurie writes, “reminds us to bring our own ideas to the table when expressing an opinion on another’s work.

I think the idea can be applied more literally to the conference setting, however. Many attendees struggle with the social aspects of conferences, from the 15 minute coffee breaks to organized social events. Engaging in improv practices might be a method for working to reduce that anxiety. It provides discreet conversation goals (“Did I build off of what my interlocutor was saying?”) and techniques for continuing conversations past initial pleasantries (“What point in their last sentence can I latch on to and build off of?”).

My current real-life reactions to prolonged social interaction at conferences. This can be improved upon.

“Yes, and…” is also an ideal practice for creating collaborative and congenial question sessions. If you are considering asking a conference presenter a question, can you think of a way to phrase it that “yes, and…”s their work? Can you ask for clarification or further details by first accepting their talk and then contributing to it? The process can work the same for responding to audience questions — can your response build off of what they have asked, even if it’s just one small point?

Ultimately, I think the “yes, and…” improv technique can be a tool for conference attendees to navigate social interactions and some of the most dreaded aspects of presenting. It’s not a cure-all, but it may be something that helps you. It’s not the only tool that improv gives us, however.

Make Your Partner Look Good

This is my favorite technique necessary for improv. Comedy and academic research both require the participation of many different people, from partners to funding agencies. Recognizing the need for collaboration is imperative, and nothing eases this collaboration more than actively working to make your partner look good. In comedy, this may mean not always stealing jokes and trying to one-up your partners, but instead setting them up for punchlines and working with them. Not trying to assert yourself constantly as the funniest person on the team actually produces a funnier and more enjoyable performance.

The same holds true for academia — classroom discussions that foster ideas by collaborating on understanding topics and arguments tend to be more productive (and more enjoyable!). Often this can be accomplished by working to help others clarify their thoughts through well-intentioned questions and expanding on their ideas. By working to make classmates look good, the end result is a discussion that puts no one on the defensive.

This practice can be applied to conferences in exactly the areas you would expect — the question period after presentations, social situations, etc. Conferences can be stressful for many people, so making the effort to lift people up whenever possible can go a long way. This may be especially true if you are presenting — make the other presenters in your session feel welcome and respond to their work (if they present before you)! 


Regardless of whether you’re honing your improv skills for use on the stage or at the conference podium, it takes practice. Each conference is a learning experience, a chance to hone your “yes, and…” and practice making your partners look good. But if you mess it up? Or if your anxiety is too much? It’s okay to bail, on the conversation or on the conference. These skills take time to learn and get right, and giving yourself space to learn and implement them is critical.

The bonus here is that as you practice your improv skills and applying them to your academic and conference-going life, you may gain other benefits as well. Scientists like Krueger are researching the use of improv as therapy for altering moods and coping with anxiety. So improv may be a tool for improving your conference game, but it certainly isn’t limited to this environment.

Improv may not be helpful for everyone, and it certainly isn’t a panacea — but the next time you’re feeling awkward while waiting for a panel to start, consider engaging in some of its teachings. “Yes, and…”ing the people you converse with and working to make your partner look good are tips and tricks that may help you create more positive interactions — at a conference, in a class discussion, or just as a human existing in the world.

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