Busy Burr is on a mission to get people to look up from their screens and PowerPoint presentations and at one another.

There’s too much PowerPoint, she said. “We’re looking down, not looking up. We’re not connecting. That’s the way we open up to discover new things.”

Busy Burr

Burr, Humana’s head of innovation, proved her point using a little improvisation with the crowd at the Idea Festival on Thursday. “I love it as an art form,” she said.

Improv is something she’s been doing for the last 15 years as a part of the Bay Area troupe Subject to Change, and she shared a few tips.

At its core, she said, improv is the creation of a story in real-time. “There’s no script. There’s no planning. The crazy thing is, the story disappears as soon as it’s over. The joy is in creation.”

She took to the stage (without a PowerPoint), but she did look at notes on her phone for prompts, including the four key aspects of improvisation:

  1. Yes, and…
  2. Exquisite listening
  3. Selfless generosity
  4. Trust

To unlock their meaning, she called upon volunteers. In one exercise, she and a volunteer ran into each other out on a walk and talked about an imaginary pet.

“We’re just yes, and-ing, there’s no story,” Burr said.

In another, she invited a group of eight on the stage and told them to close their eyes and count to 10 in sequence without anyone calling out a number at the same time. It took a few times.

“You have to really listen, both with your ears and your body,” she said. “You feel a waiting time. Once you get good at this, you start to kind of feel in between those spaces. It’s about listening with your body and your mind.”

When it comes to selfless generosity, she encouraged the audience to look beyond the one-liners of improv that often get the laughs. “The laughs in improv come from humanity, seeing the truth of humanity.”

Improv is like a dance, she said, it’s important to flow with the same kind of rhythm.

“No one is leading. To work, you have to be about generously giving to your partner. Not trying to own it, to lead, to find a gift so your partner looks good,” Burr said. “That’s the key to improv.”

The last one is to trust your partners to be there for you when you get stuck and trust in yourself. At its core, improv is fundamentally very scary, she said.

“You have to learn to trust you have inside of you what you need when you need it. If you over prepare, you will miss that. You’ll not be in the space that you are truly creative,” Burr said. “Make space, and your brain and heart can deliver for you. That’s the stuff that makes us human, authentic. Accepting fear and this kind of vulnerability, you’ll be more authentic, you’ll be yourself.”

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Mickey Meece
Mickey Meece is a native of Louisville, a Kentucky Colonel and a graduate of the University of Kentucky. She worked at The New York Times for 13 years in various capacities on the business and features desk, including assistant to the editor, small business editor, weekend editor and staff editor. Mickey served as executive editor of USAA Magazine, the Money magazine for military families, and was an editor for the American Banker newspaper, where she reported on the credit card industry.