How improvisation can improve communication and leadership in the workplace | Neil Mullarkey

6 minute watch

Workplaces around the world consistently grapple with communication challenges. Siân Harrington sits down with comedian and improv expert, Neil Mullarkey, to shed light on the unique intersection of improvisation and effective communication in business


In an era dominated by artificial intelligence (AI), the human ability to think laterally, come up with disruptive ideas and have genuine 'aha' moments remains unparalleled. While AI can rapidly process data, it lacks the spontaneity, warmth, and humour inherent to human interactions.

Neil Mullarkey, co-founder of the renowned Comedy Store Players, drives this point home in this video interview. Drawing parallels between the world of theatre and business, he underlines the unpredictability of both. For instance, while his world of comedy might consider other comedy clubs as rivals, in reality the competition extends to home entertainment giants like Netflix and Deliveroo. The question is: why venture out when comfort awaits at home?

The implications of AI in our day-to-day lives, from predictive texting to calendar scheduling, are undeniable. Yet, when it comes to true creativity, rapport, warmth and agility AI still has a long way to go. Mullarkey recalls an enlightening conversation with a software firm executive who, despite acknowledging the vast capabilities of AI, conceded that robots still can't replicate genuine humour or the art of effective listening.

Central to Mullarkey's philosophy is the art of improvisation – a practice grounded in attentive listening and one he discusses in his latest book In the Moment. It's about treating each spoken word as an 'offer,' a chance to build upon a narrative together. He has witnessed first hand the transformative power of this approach in his workshops over the last 25 years.

The term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) aptly describes today's world – one that mirrors the unpredictable nature of an improv scene. As leaders, accepting this unpredictability paves the way for a mindset that's both challenging and liberating. It's about guiding teams while also being receptive to their needs. Sometimes, leadership means setting a direct course of action, and at other times, it requires collaborative co-creation.

Another takeaway is the power dynamics in brainstorming sessions. Traditionally, louder voices dominate, often sidelining introverted contributors. But improv levels the playing field. By adhering to a "yes, and" approach – akin to 'plussing' at Pixar Pictures – ideas are built upon rather than dismissed. Such an approach ensures that all voices, not just the loudest, contribute to the story.

Mullarkey champions a world where we actively listen without filters, treating conversations as opportunities to learn and grow. Whether it's about embracing unpredictability in the workplace or navigating the vast potential of AI, there’s a wealth of insights to be gained from his perspective.

Intrigued? Watch the interview above and then dive into the full podcast episode to unlock these gems of wisdom and more. It’s a masterclass on how improv can reshape leadership and collaboration in today's ever-evolving world.

About Neil Mullarkey

Neil is a communication expert based in London, UK. He has delivered hundreds of keynotes and workshops to various organisations across the world in 25 countries and counting including Microsoft, KPMG, WPP, Saatchi & Saatchi, Vodafone, EY, Google, Deloitte and GSK. He is a guest speaker at London Business School, London Business Forum and Bayes Business School.

He is also a prominent comedian. He performs weekly with the Comedy Store Players, Europe’s top improv troupe which he co-founded in 1985 and often appears on TV and radio shows such as QI and The Pentaverate.  He has also appeared in two Austin Powers movies. He is author of In the Moment: Build your confidence, communication and creativity at work published by Kogan Page.

Listen to our podcast with Neil to discover how to practice improvisation, what an ‘in the moment’ mindset is and how to use appropriate humour in the workplace. Check out the Work’s Not Working… Let’s Fix It! podcast. And sign up to our fortnightly newsletter to access downloadable transcripts of this, and our other video interviews, as well as updates that don’t appear on this website

Published 6 September 2023
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