Have you ever been to an improv comedy show before? It can be really impressive to watch someone improvise an entire scene, maybe several scenes, based on a single suggestion from the audience. For me, the process was fascinating enough that over the last several years, I've taken 8 improv comedy classes in Boston and New York.
What I've learned is that there is a method to the madness. There are basic rules that help provide a structure for the on-the-spot creativity you see on display. As I've gotten my hands dirty with social media, helping colleges create online communities in Facebook, I've noticed that many of these same rules apply.
Rule #1: Listen
There's no script in improv comedy so listening to everything your scene partners say is essential. Every sentence provides information on who we are, where we are, what we're doing, what our relationship is, and more. You don't want to miss when your partner calls you "Dad" because that is key information that informs the scene. He's communicated that you are a father and son.
Listening is one of the most important skills in social media. With a traditional website, it can be difficult for your audience to interact with your school. That's not the case with social media. They can post on your Facebook Pages, comment on your blogs, and re-tweet your updates on Twitter. Make sure you tune in to what they're saying. Don't try to monopolize the conversation. Use what they are telling you to improve your social media efforts. Take advantage of the highly responsive feedback loop that social media offers. What information does your audience want? What types of posts generate the greatest response? What concerns pop up again and again on your walls and discussion boards?
Rule #2: Yes and...
"Yes and..." is a fundamental building block of improv. It basically means that you embrace what your scene partner offers you and you build on it. It requires you to not only acknowledge what your partner is saying or doing, but to also add new information so that the scene is constantly building. We want to be learning new things all the time about our scene. So if my partner says that we're in a forest, I might add that we're on a hike. I've defined why we're in the forest.
I think this applies to social media as well. You want to be moving the conversation forward, re-engaging your audience. If someone posts that they're a fan of your basketball team, maybe you respond with a link to the season schedule. If someone shares their enthusiasm about a club on campus, use that as an opportunity to communicate more information about that club.
I think these lessons are especially apt for admissions offices. You're trying to help prospects and admits build a more complete, more robust picture of your school. Applying the "Yes and..." technique can help you transform a simple comment into an opportunity to showcase your school.
Rule #3: Take Risks
I can't imagine a more boring improv scene than one where two people are so worried about looking like idiots that they just have a regular conversation. You've got to be willing to talk with an accent if you're playing someone from a foreign country, to sing a song if you're supposed to be a rock star, or to show some dance moves if your scene is at a night club.
Social media is a new arena for pretty much everyone. There's not 20 years of best practices and data to back up every decision. You need to push the envelope a little to find out what works and what doesn't. And that means you're going to do some stuff that flat-out doesn't work. That's fine. You learn from it and you do it better the next time. There is so much content on the Internet that's vying for the attention of your audience. If you're not bringing some creativity, some personality to the table, it's going to be much more difficult to grab their attention.
Social media is a much more improvisational experience than traditional forms of electronic media (e.g., your website and e-mails). Applying some basic rules of improv comedy may help you maximize the potential of this space.