The Three Principles: Make Positive and Active Choices

Elaine May put three “principles” of improv together and my friend and mentor Scotty Watson embraced them and expanded on them, teaching them to his students (myself included).   In any scene, you can strive to do all three, but it is difficult if not impossible to accomplish. However, if you find yourself not knowing what to do in any given interaction, perhaps with a significant other, family member or friend, try to employ one of the principles. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what happens next.


In improv, you’re typically given a setting, word, or some other abstract inspiration to begin the interaction with. Ideally your mind is a clean slate, ready to accept all of the wonders of your imagination.  


So imagine this. You’ve just arrived in the office of your hottest prospect, and you’ve prepared a fantastic PowerPoint presentation.  But the prospect is running late, had a bad morning, and just wants to go out for coffee. Now what?


You improvise.


Start by making positive and active choices.  If you were to tell the prospect that you were prepared to do something completely different, and that they’d be better off seeing what you have, you’ve just ended the scene.  Your prospect may allow you to continue, but they are likely not engaged or mentally present.


Now let’s say you said, “Yes, a cup of coffee sounds great! I didn’t get a chance to have breakfast anyway.” Or maybe you make an active choice, and suggest a place to go that happens to have very good coffee.  Now you’ve just positioned yourself as resourceful, empathetic, and adaptable. But in reality, all you did was listen.


I’ve spent the better part of my life with people from large and small companies, including investment bankers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, construction workers and educators.  The common thread of their success in every instance is listening to understand, not merely to respond. It’s about communicating and relating your experiences to what the other person is talking about.

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