It might surprise you to know that market research and improv comedy are a lot alike. I’ve been doing improv for less than a year, and I can already see the skills I’ve picked up in my first few classes improving my moderation style. It turns out, moderating an interview shares a lot of elements with improv. Some of the fundamentals of improv are:

  1. Yes and
  2. Treat your scene partner like they’re a genius, and
  3. Give the scene space to unfold (in the case of long-form improv)

These habits have been immensely helpful in the interview moderation I’ve done thus far. Interviews are all about coaxing people to provide insight into client objectives. Treating respondents like they’re geniuses (or just simply very interesting) encourages them to open up. In “yes-and”ing someone, you meet them where they are mentally, which leaves room for them to open up about their opinions. In other words, be on their side and explore base reality the way they perceive it. Like an improviser, a good moderator in general also seeks to listen more and speak less. Improv gives me an outlet to practice these skills in much lower-stakes situations.

Yes and…

“Yes, and” is one of the most important rules of improv – even if you know nothing about improv, you’ve likely heard this phrase. One of the first things you learn is to always say yes. Maybe your partner starts a scene by saying, “you know, Gertrude, I’m so glad to be spending our anniversary at this landfill.” Your job as their scene partner is to go along with whatever crazy premise they have in mind and justify it. “Yes, and it reminds me of our first date when we went dumpster diving to find my keys” or “Yes, and it reminds me of the first time I saw you wearing those state-issued coveralls” are both acceptable responses.

While moderating a qualitative interview is probably a lot less goofy than an improvised scene at an imaginary landfill, the skill of “yes and”ing and going with the flow have served me well as a moderator. Part of the fun of moderating is hearing from respondents with all different points of view. When working from a discussion guide, you can’t be a robot and read straight from the guide (most of the time). You have to go with the flow of the conversation and ask questions that relate to what the person has just said. After all, conducting an interview is really just having a conversation.

Treat your scene partner like a genius

You’re probably familiar with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you treat people as though you expect them to succeed, they will probably succeed. Treat them like you expect them to fail, and they are likely to fail. It’s the same in improv – expect your scene partner to make good choices, and the scene is more likely to go smoothly.

When moderating an interview, it is important to be genuinely interested in what your respondent has to say. If you act like what they’re saying is boring, they will clam up; but if you convey genuine interest in what they have to say, they will feel comfortable sharing their honest opinions.

Give the scene space to unfold

Long-form improv usually consists of performing one continuous 15-20 minute scene. If that scene moves too quickly, it becomes difficult for the audience (and for the improvisers themselves) to understand what’s going on. When you take a more measured approach to a long-form scene, it allows you and your scene partner to more easily discover which aspects of the scene are interesting enough to explore further.

The same goes for a qualitative interview. If you rush through the interview, you will potentially confuse the respondent and any stakeholders who may be observing. Additionally, respondents often offer fascinating insights that haven’t been addressed in your discussion guide. In that case, you should go “off-book” to explore your respondent’s point of view. If you simply stick to your discussion guide like a script, you risk missing out on critical insights that would ultimately prove invaluable to your client.

Ciara Lutz

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