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Navigating ambiguity

In 2000, Greg Hohn (BA ’85) taught the first improv course at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Make that the first course – semester-long and for credit – at any business school.

Now he’s written the first and only book that lays out an entire course on applied improv: “Putting Improv to Work: Spontaneous Performance for Professional and Personal Life” (Toplight Books 2022).

But the book isn’t just for teachers. He shares the principles and practices of improv and their applications in professional, academic and social settings.

Hohn, clinical assistant professor of management and corporate communication, based the book on his highly successful course at UNC Kenan-Flagler, where he has taught in the Undergraduate Business, MAC, MBA and Executive Development Programs.

In addition to being a lot of fun and a great way to connect with people, improv develops skills in communication, collaboration, creativity, and listening, Hohn says. It also helps build confidence and heighten emotional intelligence.

Improv is about exploration, which requires patience and an open mind, and about action, he says. It also is about navigating ambiguity – and looking at it as an opportunity instead of a hazard.

“Improvisation is just another way of saying ‘not knowing.’ You don’t know what’s going to happen in improv because it hasn’t happened yet,” Hohn writes.

This is scary because most people are afraid of the unknown; they want to know how to gauge success and failure. But after leaving school, “we have to figure out so much for ourselves. No teacher is waiting to reveal the answer if we can’t find it on our own.”

Hohn’s students

Improv also involves taking risks and understanding that fear doesn’t necessarily correlate to danger, he says. It improves the ability to think on your feet and helps you be more creative and a better communicator. One of those risks is being vulnerable in front of a group of people, which is necessary to be a leader if you want to be trustworthy and inspiring, he says.

Hohn has been a professional improviser since 1989, when he joined Transactors Improv Company in Chapel Hill, becoming the company’s director in 1996. He has led applied-improv programs for corporations, organizations and academic institutions across the U.S. and outside it.

“When Jim Dean was associate dean of the Full-Time MBA Program, he was looking for innovative classes. Improv fit the bill, so he took a chance and green-lit my Applied Improv course,” says Hohn.

“This book will help institutions around the country and the world to benefit from Greg’s insights on how to use the skills of improvisation to dramatically enhance one’s leadership,” writes Dean, who later became dean of the Business School and is now president of the University of New Hampshire,

Hohn devotes a chapter of the book to “Applied Improv at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School,” sharing the course’s evolution and his own as an educator.

His book earned this review on Amazon: “This book is a wonderful blend of improv fundamentals, life philosophy and ready-made exercises. For those of us striving to be more present in every facet of life, the lessons here are plentiful. … Greg Hohn exhorts us to get out of our comfort zones and helps us examine our hang-ups around self-consciousness and risk-taking. While you could argue that reading a book about improv is not on the same order as taking a class, I gained a surprising amount of insight from the individual exercises and from applying the book’s take-aways in my day-to-day experience.”

Reflecting on his career journey after graduating from Carolina as an English major, he remarks on surprising career journey. “If you had told me then that I’d be here more than 35 years later doing improv and teaching at a business school – the Business School – I would have said you were crazy. I sort of improvised my career, some might say. But that’s the cool thing: you pursue something that you’re interested in and it could lead to something you couldn’t have imagined from the perspective of where you were before. You take a step and the next step appears.”

Read more about the valuable life lessons that students learn in Hohn’s Applied Improv class.