Don’t worry, we taxidermied the watermelon, not the baby: How improv can help businesspeople with their day jobs

My life would not be what it is today without my having performed improvisational comedy with Second City in Chicago — and my career certainly wouldn’t be, either.

That is why I was ecstatic to participate in an improv-based event on Wednesday hosted by the Advancing Leadership Influence committee with the Association for Corporate Growth New Jersey at McLoone’s Boathouse in West Orange.

The ALI committee, which designs events for individuals 10 to 20 years into their careers, invited Jason Lieu, co-founder of the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Slide Deck Improv, to teach nearly two dozen of its members the basics of improvisational comedy.


“We show how improv can help professionals in their everyday lives,” Lieu said.

Though Lieu began his career as a certified public accountant in San Jose, California, he said he left his job to pursue acting in Los Angeles almost immediately upon taking improv classes.

“I loved improv for bringing me out of my shell and showing me a whole new world,” he said.

Born an introvert, Lieu said he was able to overcome his anxieties and transform his nervousness into excitement for the craft.

However, to make rent, Lieu also became a contract accountant with Toll Bros. — which earned him enough savings to travel across Southeast Asia, New Zealand and Australia.

Upon his return, Lieu said he has continued to work as a contract accountant while facilitating presentations with Slide Deck Improv.

“Today, I am a Seattle resident melding my professional and personal life together to teach others what I have learned,” Lieu said.

The goal is to enhance presentation and communication skills for professionals, he said.

But what, exactly, does improvisation take?

One must learn to be creative, collaborative and trusting, but fear — of judgment, perception and failure — can inhibit all three of those things.

“All of these feelings are real, but that doesn’t mean they are true,” Lieu said. “What if we could instead turn our fears into possibilities?”

The No. 1 pitfall presenters fall into, Lieu added, is adopting a “get it over with” mentality in response to being nervous.

“But, when we focus on our audience rather than ourselves, our fears actually can be alleviated,” he said.

To best engage one’s audience, one must listen actively and accept their gifts, Lieu said.

“For example, if people are on their phones while I am presenting, I could get defensive and start speaking louder or yelling at people to pay attention,” he said. “Or, I could receive that information and interpret it as a gift. The audience is communicating something, and it is up to me to accept whatever it is in order to address and shift what they are feeling.

“It’s a concept we call ‘yes, and’ in improv. Yes, we accept what you are saying, and then, we add to it.

“We’re so used to saying ‘Yes, but,’ but when you do that, no matter how subtly, you are shutting people down.”

To demonstrate, Lieu had each table listen to and work with one another to tell the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” using just one word per person.

(My table ended up developing a character so smart he outsmarted the tropes of the original version by telling a more detailed version of his story.)

Then, Lieu said it was “time to get comfortable with the uncomfortable,” as the next game would call for volunteers.

“If you make it a point to show your vulnerability, people can be very empathetic,” he said. “Failure always will be a possibility. But if we do not take chances, we are not putting ourselves out there.

“It’s like that saying, ‘A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what it is meant to do.’”

To overcome the fear of vulnerability, Lieu asked participants to introduce themselves as travel experts who could talk about a particular location as well as answer questions from the audience.

The result? We collectively got to explore both “Disappointment Island” as well as “Submarine Cruises” with confident, upbeat volunteers who dazzled with spontaneous puns and dry wit.

The last pitfall for presenters, Lieu said, is including too much data or too many words in a presentation.

“If presenters are not hiding behind a lectern, they typically do so behind a mess of words and charts on a PowerPoint,” he said. “These are crutches that audiences immediately disconnect from.”

To counteract this tendency, Lieu asked participants to present and answer questions on a subject matter based on five random images.

“Stories are something humans have used for thousands of years to communicate powerful memories,” Lieu said.

The outcomes were pure fun.

We spoke with an expert spelunker who recently traveled to South Africa in a shipping container; a tax expert who said New Jersey could lower its taxes by exporting chickens, growing sugar and transporting produce via covered wagons; and I had the distinct pleasure of connecting an image of a baby eating a watermelon with the subject of taxidermy.

That is the magic of improv. Even if you have been performing for 15 years, you can never know what to expect.

You just know that you’ll be prepared.