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Improv Night for Business Freshmen Proves to Boost Interview, Communication Skills

By Keith Morelli

Improv Night

TAMPA (Feb. 28, 2017) -- The group of mostly freshmen business students stand around a large room at the Juniper Poplar Hall dormitory on a recent evening, giggling, getting to know each other a little bit. Nervous laughter among strangers, many away from home for the first time.

But the night grows more gregarious and entertaining when Scott Swenson takes charge. The first exercise: Walk around the room. The students chuff. Then, a moment of introspection. Walk around the room while exaggerating quirks in your walk. Then exaggerate it more.

Then, exaggerate the walk of others. Soon, the self-conscious tension that always exists among strangers disappears in a moment of unity-amid-humility. Swenson now knows, it's off to the races.

Welcome to Improv Night for the Bulls Business Community, where high achieving freshmen enrolled in the Muma College of Business study and live together, all of whom live in the dorm. At first blush, the exercises are just for fun, for some laughs, to get students comfortable in a university setting. But there are underlying reasons for the frivolity.

Swenson says the exercises can help the students in ways they don't yet realize.

Soon, the students form a large circle and a small bean bag is produced. The exercise: Make eye contact with someone across the circle and toss the bean bag to that person. Eventually, five more bean bags are introduced and are launched into crisscrossing sorties.

"Google actually uses this exercise in their group interviews," Swenson tells the students. It measures teamwork and collaboration.

"You may not think it's important," he says. "You may not think anyone is watching. But this is very important."

A renewed interest in tossing and catching the bean bags comes over the room.

Swenson is a contractor hired by the college to conduct these exercises. He owns Scott Swenson Creative Development. This is what he does.

"I've conducted improv sessions for just about every age," he says, "and pretty much every level."

A graduate of the University of Northern Illinois with a degree in theater, Swenson worked with Second City Television in Chicago for 11 years before taking a job as director of entertainment at Busch Gardens, where he worked for 21 years.

Here, he's hoping to teach students the importance of improvisation in communicating; to roll with the punches, be relaxed, articulate.

"The principle of improv is that everybody uses it in their daily lives," he says. "In business, it's used in contract negotiations, job interviews and it is implemented in training. These exercises teach students how to think on their feet, to be in the moment. It's all about being observant and being in the moment."

Next exercise: Questions. A scenario is set and two of the students open a conversation. But they only are allowed to ask questions. If someone answers a question with a statement, that person goes to the end of the line. This forces students to think ahead and not just sleepwalk out an answer.

Next exercise: Freeze tag. An improvised scenario is being played out by students in the center of the circle until one of the outliers tells them to freeze. That freezer comes in to take over for one of the participants. That person can steer the conversation into a totally new direction and the other players must play along. Pure improvisation.

"You don't worry about things that were just said," Swenson says. "You don't worry about things going to be said. You concentrate on the here and now."

Next exercise: Alphabet scene. Two participants begin a conversation, but the first letter of the first word of their response must be the next letter in the alphabet. "Are you ok?" "Better not ask." "Can you elaborate?" and so on.

Though the exercises are fun and draw the students together, there's a deeper purpose, Swenson says. All this leads to boosted confidence in conversing with employers and other professionals and speaking in front of a crowd. Some of the students who appeared to be a bit shy about that at first, by the end of the session, are all talking, acting comfortably among each other and before the group.

Though the night was a bit rambunctious, everyone leaves a little more at ease with each other and themselves. The underlying reason, that being to do well in interviews, thinking on your feet and landing a position, isn't far below the surface.

"What about that job now?" one student shouts.