Jason Lewis Discusses the Art of Improv and Its Link to Legal Communication

I’m slowly working through all my friends from outside of our community with something to contribute. On this criterion, Jason Lewis – change management consultant, facilitator and improvisational comedy artist – is a great introduction.

Jason and I both ran distance back at Queen’s, and first became close when we roomed for a summer – me teaching windsurfing and Jason doing telesales, and both of us with plenty of time for just shooting the breeze. We spent every night on “storybook porch” with friends, talking goofy stuff but also lots about the skills we both employ in our professional lives today. Since then, Jason has caused me to think hard about many aspects of my own performance, so I’m happy to introduce you to him.

Here’s our conversation, recorded just before the Christmas break and edited for readability.

Jay, maybe you could tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do for a living?

JL. Well, I do consulting and facilitating – mostly on change management. A significant amount of this work is in the oil and gas sector, but I’ve also worked with very interesting groups all over Canada, the United States and even overseas. The other work I’m doing is facilitating using “improv” – improvisational comedy – as a tool to animate concepts around leadership and work creativity.

DM. You’ve applied improv in consulting and facilitating?

JL. Absolutely, absolutely. I actually did my Masters at Royal Roads University on learning and development, and my thesis was on using improv in the corporate environment as a team training tool. So I’ve done research on high performing teams and how to use improv to help teams develop recognized best practices.

Jason Lewis, fully present (Photo: Jenny Hamilton)

DM. Can you identify a key technique that you use?

JL. One of the big principles of improv is “yes, and.” So if I’m on stage and you’re my stage partner and you come in saying “Captain, Captain, the duck is sick,” I have to recognize that I’m the captain of something and my scene partner is very concerned about this duck. If I say to myself, “I’m not a captain and that is not a duck,” the whole scene stops. If I say “yes, and” to both – “Well Lieutenant, we better get it some antibiotics.” – then the scene can move forward and we have something we can work with together.

DM. Sounds like a different way of thinking.

JL. Yes. Most of us have experienced “yes, but” meetings. Well, you know, we are need to defend this litigation but there’s a ton of documents to produce and there’s this legal problem or that legal problem. So that really shuts the conversation down. What about, yes and this is an opportunity to get efficient at producing documents and so on.

DM. It seems like a technique to get groups thinking creatively.

JL. Absolutely, absolutely. You’ve contributed something and here is my piece. We’re going to build this little cathedral together.

DM. Any other key techniques or principles?

JL. If we can get people to do “yes, and” we’re most of the way there. But the other piece that is really important is “presence,” which involves focus and listening.

DM. Please explain.

JL. When you and I are on that stage together doing a scene about a duck, I’ve got to be really focussed on what’s going on and what you are offering to me. You know, if it seems like your character is scared, well that is something that I can use. I can amplify that fear in an interesting way for the audience.

DM. Sounds a little like you’re teaching people how to be empathetic?

JL. Yes, yes.

DM. Is there an application for litigators?

JL. One of the reasons that writers and dramatists love trials is because there is so much rich conflict. There are characters and there’s often a story about someone behaving badly right? If you’re a trial lawyer you’re not really an actor but are present in the courtroom. What sorts of really subtle techniques are you going to use in your interaction with a witness to enhance the impact of your exchange? Do you want to appear friendly or disarming or charming, etc.? Improv can help litigators be conscious of how they are present in a court room.

DM. That’s your “presence” concept. What about “yes, and”?

JL. I understand that trial lawyers want to be as prepared as possible, but things go sideways quite frequently right? The “yes, and” principle is a good one for helping litigators move forward from those points.

DM. Will it come naturally to lawyers?

JL. Well, there’s a tension. With advocacy, you have a very strong point that you want to make in a competitive environment. Yet improv comedy is all about collaboration because if you and your four colleagues are on stage in a pressure situation so if you are not collaborating or if you are trying to make yourself look better than your colleagues, then you are going to get into a bit of trouble. However, by developing skills around presence, around focus, around “yes, and,” you are certainly going become a better communicator. I think that a lot of people are very good in a couple of ways of communicating, but can be so good that they become insensitive to how they are actually presenting. Improv training can help overcome this.

DM. So where do lawyers go to find out more about improv?

JL. In the Toronto area I would go to Second City or Mad Dog Theatre. Most improv groups offer courses. In Calgary, I’m with the Kinkonauts and we’re at www.kinkonauts.com.

DM. Thanks Jay. What’s up next for you professionally?

JL. More of the same, and I’m developing a presentation skills course based on improv that I’ve already run a couple of times at the Banff Centre for Leadership. It focuses on presentation skills and being spontaneous as a presenter – so when things change, when somebody comes up with a question out of the blue, how to respond and maintain composure.

DM. Sounds read-made for lawyers.

JL. Yes, absolutely and we’d love to work with a group of lawyers. The beauty of working with lawyers is that they’re already advanced communicators, so it’s really about helping develop mastery.

DM. Awesome. Thanks again!

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