294. Yes And: Improv in Psychology with Kelly Leonard

Let’s talk about the magic that is improvisation, or what us cool kids call “improv.” It’s an art form that’s all about unleashing your creativity and performing without a script or plan. Sure, you may have heard of it as a side-splitting comedy act, but improv goes a lot deeper than that. From acting to business to mental health, improv skills can be applied in various areas of life. 

Enter Kelly Leonard, the VP of Creative Strategy, Innovation, and Business Development at the infamous Second City in Chicago. Kelly, who over the decades has produced hundreds of original revues with comedians such as Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Seth Meyers (to name a few) has a unique understanding of behavioral science through the lens of improv.  

Regaling us with lessons and stories from his career and book, Yes And’, we learn how to utilize improv to help us adapt, empathize, communicate, trust, and collaborate better. We are reminded that saying ‘yes’ to new ideas and experiences sparks creativity and can lead to beneficial outcomes. From deepening our relationships with others by practicing active listening and learning to accept and appreciate new ideas, regardless of their origin. It also teaches us to think on our feet and work together to create innovative solutions to problems.

Listen and Learn: 

  • How Stephen Colbert came to write a blurb for Kelly’s book, Yes, and: How Improvisation Reverses No, But Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration
  • Why so many successful comedy performers have an improv background 
  • How improv skills can help us to empathize, communicate and collaborate
  • The idea of the ‘Yes And’ exercise 
  • Why Kelly prefers to use the word ensemble vs. team 
  • Improv’s positive impact on caregiver burden and depression
  • An introduction to the ‘I Am Somebody Who’ exercise
  • Why adopting a Yes And mentality helps create a psychologically safe environment
  • How improv can be applied in therapy 
  • If improv were an animal, what animal would it be? 
  • What’s next for Kelly’s work in science and the arts 

Correction! The course Debbie mentioned when she was talking about the book Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life was taught at The Stanford Graduate School of Business, not at Harvard. Oops, I’m sorry Stanford!


About Kelly Leonard 

Kelly Leonard is the Executive Director of Learning and Applied Improvisation at Second City Works. His book, “Yes, And: Lessons from The Second City” was released to critical acclaim in 2015 by HarperCollins and was praised by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair who called it “…an excellent guide to the lessons that have bubbled up in Second City’s improv workshops.” Kelly is a popular speaker on the power of improvisation to transform people’s lives. He has presented at The Aspen Ideas Festival, The Code Conference, TEDx Broadway, Chicago Ideas Festival, The Stanford Graduate School of Business, and for companies such as Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Twitter, Memorial Sloan Kettering and DDB Worldwide. 

Kelly co-created an initiative with the Center for Decision Research at the Booth School at the University of Chicago, The Second Science Project, that looks at behavioral science through the lens of improvisation. He also hosts the podcast, “Getting to Yes, And,” for Second City Works and WGN radio that features interviews with academics, authors and leaders such as Brene Brown, Adam Grant, Michael Lewis, Lindy West, Ash Carter and Amy Edmondson.

For over twenty years, Kelly oversaw Second City’s live theatrical divisions where he helped generate original productions with such talent as Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Steve Carell, Keegan Michael Key, Amy Sedaris, Adam McKay and others. In 2019, Arts Alliance Illinois awarded Kelly and his wife Anne Libera with their Creative Voice Award.

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Episode 294