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The Bill Murray Technique: How To Improvise Through Anything

The gist: Four, simple things you can practice every day will help you find the “right thing to say” in any situation. Even if you’re nervous or uncomfortable.


There was no script. There was no prompting. No cue cards, no visual reminders, no lines at all. The only direction? “Pretend like you’re a child, living out your biggest sports fantasy.”

That’s everything Bill Murray had to go on when he created this scene, which has become one of the most famous improvised movie scenes in history:1

Beautiful, isn’t it? Two minutes before he shooting the scene, Murray had no idea what he was going to say. But when the lights came on and the camera started rolling, the story flowed like it were there all along.

That skill has taken him—and plenty of others who’ve mastered the art of improv—far in life.

And if you’ve ever been caught with your pants down, unable to come up with the right words when you needed them the most, there’s much you can learn from the greats.

Improvisation: Not Just For Comedians

Improv, of course, isn’t just for actors or comedians. What would your life be like if you knew you could expertly handle any situation life throws at you? How much confidence would it bring to trust you’ll know exactly what to say the moment you’re saying it.

If public speaking is the most popular fear2, imagine being asked to do it on the spot.

It sounds frightening but, really, you improvise every day as you chat with your spouse and kids, report your progress to your boss, or talk to customer service about how annoyed you are that your electricity has been off for two days.

Improv is an integral part of your life, and it can always be improved. The better you get, the easier life becomes and the more better you’ll relate to people.

Expert Improv: 4 Steps To Up Your Game

Here are four of the most important principles for adapting to life and improvising your way through unexpected situations.3

1. Listen carefully.

To know exactly what to say next, you have to know exactly what was said before. Not just the words, but the meaning and the context behind them.

Today, it’s easier than ever to tune out the world or become distracted when you should be paying attention. I’m certainly guilty of this; ask my wife. If you can relate, hope is hardly lost. There are several things you can do to force yourself to be more present:

  1. Always single-task. The overwhelming consensus of all cognition studies report you only think you’re good at multitasking. In fact, you’re really bad at it.4 When you’re engaged in conversation, be engaged in conversation.
  2. Make eye contact. This is the best way I know of to keep myself from becoming distracted. If you’re tempted to pay attention to other things going on around you, push them out of your field of vision. The easiest way to do that is to make eye contact and focus on the other person’s face.
  3. Empathize. To really know how to react to any scenario, you need to know how the other people involved are feeling. As you listen, try to get inside their head to understand what their motivations are and attempt to feel them yourself. You can instantly unlock so much understanding by empathizing.

2. Always say yes.

At the core of great improv is the understanding that you can only be in control by giving up control. You have to be willing to say yes to everything that comes to you. That sounds funny, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it.

When you try to tightly control a situation you’re uncomfortable with, everyone sees you struggle. Your plan is interrupted by things that don’t fit. First, you say no. Then you have to stop, reconsider, struggle with what to do and, finally react. Very inelegant.

When you master the art of improv, you no longer concern yourself with a strict plan. Instead, you stick to a desired outcome and simply adjust the plan as necessary to keep heading towards it.

When you say yes and accept each unplanned thing that comes, you skip all the uncertainty and just react. It looks and feels effortless because you’re no longer trying to battle the unknown.

Think of it like this: A Maserati will be beat an old minvan in a drag race, but if there are obstacles in the course, the car will become unimportant and the skill of the drivers will determine the winner.

3. Commit to the bit.

Without commitment, there is no improvisation. To pull off the perfect bit, you can’t spend your time wondering if your last line was as perfect as it could have been or if you’re really ready for what’s about to come next.

When you’re uncomfortable in a social situation, it’s common to replay your conversations in your head, wondering if you messed them up somewhere.

Thats not necessarily bad—introspection is good—but it should be saved for later, not in the moment when you’re trying to connect with someone.

You’ll have plenty of time to remind yourself of any blunders as you lay awake later that night!

When it comes to improv, you’re either all in or you’re out. Once you’re in, though, your mind is sharp, focused, and ready to respond instantly to whatever comes next because all the bandwidth spent second guessing yourself is free to react instead.

4. You can’t do it wrong.

Perhaps this is the most important principle of mastering improv and living in the moment. There is no right or wrong. There is only action and reaction. This is because, for improvisation to work, there’s no room to worry about such silly and subjective things as “correct” or “incorrect.”

Once you accept that whatever you do is okay and quickly forgotten, the three steps above get a lot easier.

If you doubt this, watch almost any live television show—especially ones that you enjoy and aren’t critical of. The hosts are often flubbing their lines and having to recover. But you don’t care because they’re present in the moment and you enjoying what you’re seeing.

They often don’t even acknowledge the mistake; they just carry on like nothing happened. Seconds later, everyone’s forgotten.

This is the mindset to embrace to expertly navigate conversations; especially uncomfortable ones. Your small mistakes simply don’t matter. What really counts is that you get your message across, even if it’s delivered imperfectly.

Practice Every Day

Whether you like it or not, you’re engaged in some form of improv every day. As long as that’s the case, you might as well be good at it. The tips above will help, but only if you put them to use.

Today, as you wander about, look for every opportunity to step into the unknown and try your improv skills on for size.

  1. Talk to strangers.
  2. Speak without thinking.
  3. Get involved in an unfamiliar conversation.

As long as you listen, say yes, commit, and give yourself permission to react, you’ll only improve. Soon enough, you’ll wonder why you ever worried about it before.

Footnotes

  1. I learned this from the IMDB entry for Caddyshack.
  2. See here for public speaking ideas for introverts.
  3. And here’s a list of 10 rules when you’re ready to learn more.
  4. Source: The Myth Of Multitasking