The Benefits of Improv

by Wade Jackson

Improvisation sets up a safe and fun environment for a person to undergo experiential self-directed learning. Through the interactive exercises and activities, a person is able to experience learning on an intellectual, physical and emotional level. With regular practise a person is able to self-reflect on their learnings and make better choices. This personal growth results in not only being a better improviser but a person is able to transfer this learning to every area of their life, whether it's personal relationships, or professional work or school. 

Improvisation is the wonderful vehicle for leadership development, whether it's self leadership or leadership of others, as it imparts crucial life skills that every person needs. 

Multiple Intelligence Theory

In an effort to broaden the definition of intelligence, Harvard Professor of education Howard Gardener developed the Multiple Intelligence theory in 1983 which states that a person has different types of intelligences. In his 1999 book Intelligence Reframed, Gardner defines intelligence as "a biological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture."

The 8 categories are:

  1. Intrapersonal Intelligence 
  2. Interpersonal Intelligence 
  3. Bodily - Kinaesthetic Intelligence 
  4. Visual - Spatial Intelligence 
  5. Musical Intelligence 
  6. Verbal - Linguistic Intelligence
  7. Logical - Mathematical Intelligence
  8. Natural Intelligence 

The term Emotional Intelligence although not recognized by Howard Gardner as it does not fit under his definition is in fact, the combination of both Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Intelligence. 

Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of the book Emotional Intelligence, claims that success in life comes down to 80% emotional intelligence and 20% technical knowledge. Whatever the statistic, it is obviously important that as a social being, it is crucial for people to be able to manage themselves and relationships with other people. 

While improvisation develops skills that can be used across all intelligences, there is a focus on the following intelligences:

  1. Intrapersonal Intelligence - hereon called Self Intelligence
  2. Interpersonal Intelligence - hereon called Social Intelligence
  3. Bodily - Kinaesthetic Intelligence - hereon called Physical Intelligence
  4. Verbal - Linguistic Intelligence - hereon called Verbal Intelligence
  5. Visual - Spatial Intelligence - hereon called Spatial Intelligence
  6. Musical Intelligence

1. Self Intelligence

The exercises and activities in improvisation act as a mirror. They enable for the person participating in them to see themselves and notice their thoughts, emotions, behaviours and capabilities. It is in this way that they can achieve what every philosopher and spiritual teacher has said throughout history - know thyself. 


Improvisation develops one's:

  • Confidence and self-acceptance 
  • Ability to focus and concentrate
  • Ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances
  • Awareness of how one thinks
  • Awareness of the quality of one's inner voice
  • Awareness of one's emotions
  • Awareness of personal responsibility from choices made
  • Awareness of one's strengths and areas of opportunities to develop
  • Sense of fun

2. Social Intelligence

The exercises and activities in improvisation require people to interact with others to achieve a common objective - usually to tell a good story. The objective cannot be met if people don't work harmoniously together. In order to reach this goal, people develop the skills and understanding of what is required to work effectively together and how to enjoy it. 

Every person has a basic human need to be involved in something bigger than themselves. Improvisation meets this need as people are able to have creative expression and work together to achieve something they could never create by themselves.


Improvisation develops one's:

  • Trust with team members
  • Ability to create and sustain rapport
  • Ability to empathize 
  • Ability to see things from new perspectives
  • Ability to influence 
  • Ability to accept other people's ideas and points of view
  • Ability to sacrifice one's ego for the sake of the group

3. Physical Intelligence 

Improvisation develops an awareness of one's body, how it moves through space and read other's body language. The mind and body are one; you cannot affect one without affecting the other, so you can influence your thoughts and action through the way you use your body. An awareness of physical expression is also very important for effective communication. 


Improvisation develops one's:

  • Confidence and assertiveness through physical expression 
  • Ability to communicate non-verbally 
  • Ability to exert dominance when needed 
  • Ability to relax others non-verbally
  • Ability to build rapport non-verbally
  • Ability to physically blend in and feel comfortable in any environment 

4. Verbal Intelligence 

Improvisation imparts essential communication skills that have a positive effect on daily life. As a human being you can't not communicate, for everything you say and do reveals something about you. Improvisation that focuses on narrative and different ways of telling stories helps people realise the elements that make a good story. 


Improvisation develops one's:

  • Narrative ability and how to engage hearts and minds through story
  • Empathetic listening skills so that one truly understands others
  • Ability to express oneself more effectively 

5. Spatial Intelligence 

In improvisation people create imaginary objects, environments and even people in the space. In order to acknowledge and honour the things created, one must be aware of where they are in space. Sharing the stage means that people must know where others are and what they're doing. 


Improvisation develops one's:

  • Awareness of space 
  • Ability create and share focus in space
  • Ability to create imaginary objects and environments in space
  • Ability to hold imaginary objects in the mind

6. Musical Intelligence 

In improvisation people sing and may improvise music. These skills require an understanding of rhythm, tempo, pitch and tone. 


Improvisation develops one's:

  • Ability to vary vocal pitch, tone, volume and tempo
  • Ability to create and maintain rhythm 

7. Creativity 

Human beings have a basic need to grow as people. Creative expression, in any shape of form is fundamental to our physical, emotional, spiritual wellbeing. The result of creativity is personal growth. Creativity is like a muscle, it needs to be worked in order for it to be developed. Improvisation develops one's creativity, mental flexibility and thinking skills in numerous ways. 


Improvisation develops one's:

  • Imagination and ability to generate new ideas 
  • Spontaneity and ability to present without preconceived ideas
  • Ability to take risks and overcome fear of failure and being judged
  • Ability to detach from any expectations and set ways of thinking and acting
  • Ability to embrace and explore ambiguity and different ways of doing things
  • Ability to tap into one's intuition and trust one's natural creative instincts
  • Ability to delay acting on one's judgments of others and the situation
  • Ability to be open to other ideas, support them and build on them
  • Ability to justify which creates new things by putting them into a context and giving them a reason to exist
  • Ability to solve problems in new and different ways 

And because improvisation is an art form, it is a life-long journey of exploration and discovery. Although it is not something you ever master, its riches are constantly being unfolded as a reward for committing to and preserving with the art form. And most importantly, it is a fun way of traveling on the journey to self-actualisation. Laughter and friendship are just two of the natural byproducts of studying the art of improvisation.