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Indie Influence: Rochester's Truth Collective has staffers participate in weekly improv classes

Welcome to Indie Influence, a series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies across the country. This week we're featuring Truth Collective's weekly improv class for staffers.

Mandatory meetings, training and presentations are par for the course at most agencies, but mandatory improv? Not so much. Unless you work at Rochester-based Truth Collective, where staffers have been taking part in 90-minute improv sessions each week for the past few months to improve their presentation and collaboration skills.

The idea came about after Alyssa Davis, a copywriter at Truth Collective, discussed her past experiences with improv at one of the agency’s regular “lunch and learn” sessions. During her talk, she walked her colleagues through some basic improv exercises and explained how’s it helped her come out of her shell, get better at presenting and more easily connect with others during the creative process.

Around that time, chief creative officer Jeremy Schwartz said that he and a few other execs at the agency had been looking to implement some sort of presentation training program at Truth Collective to help employees with their overall professional development. Finding that most of these programs were “a little bit outmoded or irrelevant for the type of culture” they were trying to foster at the three-year-old shop, Schwartz said they decided to turn to improv instead.

That's when they reached out to Rochester’s Geva Comedy Improv troupe, which now sends two of its members to the agency every Thursday to help Truth Collective employees get better at thinking on their feet, being present in the moment and having unscripted conversations. All 22 staff members attend the class each week, including the leadership team.

“Everybody is there, from the owners through the newest team member, “ says chief executive Bob Bailey.

Schwartz says that he’s already seen some of the lessons learned in improv begin to seep into the agency’s day-to-day work and culture. For example, one of the core principles of improv is the concept of “Yes, and,” meaning that you should never disagree with or contradict someone during a scene. So if someone says, “It’s great that we were able to make it out to the beach today,” you shouldn’t respond by saying, “We’re not at the beach, we’re at the mall.” Rebuttals like this often kill the scene since they don’t give your partner much to work off of.

While it may be a simple concept, it requires people to truly listen to one another and work together to make the scene interesting. In a recent presentation of work at the agency, Schwartz says he could tell that employees were applying this type of thinking to their presentations.

“‘Yes, and’ methodology came out very clear,” he says. “People were building off of each other’s stories when they were talking about the work. It’s been fun watching the principles of improv actually start creeping their way into the presentations and into the work itself.”

Bailey said he believes that improv is helping the agency creatively as well since it encourages employees to be spontaneous and not overthink what they’re saying or doing during a scene.

“I think one thing that’s really fundamental about improv and the impact that it’s had is that because it makes you so vulnerable - sometimes you do a great job, and sometimes you goof up - it shows everybody that being perfect is not the goal. Being yourself and freeing your mind is the goal,” he says. “That’s the type of thing that can really add a lot of energy and interest to brainstorming situations and things like that. If you’re less worried about having the perfect answer and just sort of furthering the group with your thoughts, the work gets pretty cool that way.”

In addition to the more practical ways that improv has impacted the agency, Bailey says it’s also helped build a sense of trust and camaraderie amongst colleagues at Truth Collective since they’re all letting their guards down and participating in it together.

“It creates that vulnerability, which ultimately creates trust,” he says. “We know a whole lot more about one another than we would if we were just sort of sitting around in cubicles and going for happy hour. That’s what’s been really interesting from my standpoint.”

Schwartz echoed his sentiment, stating that even the some of the agency’s quieter employees have embraced the weekly sessions, including one “quiet web developer” who shows a “whole different side” of himself during improv.

“There’s a few folks like that who are a little bit more introverted. It’s not that they’re not sociable, it’s just that they’ve found a platform to really let their personality out,” he says. “It has been great to see them show that other side of themselves, and that translates to a tighter social bond collectively.”

While the scheduled sessions are set to come to a close in a few weeks, Schwartz says that they could potentially continue improv training in the new year since it has been so well received at Truth Collective.

“I know people have been really looking forward to it each week,” he says. “People are pretty vocal here. I think that they would tell us if it was a waste of time.”

Indie Influence is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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