Air Personalities: Learn These Improv Skills

Aside from being a genuinely likable person, the most important quality an air personality can master is the ability to respond spontaneously. Being truly in the moment as an active listener will help advance a topic. Two improv skills help in this area: active listening and free association.

Active Listening

Even solo shows can use active listening and free association to generate more interesting content.

Active listening means accepting a new reality and responding at the moment every time something is said.

Each comment changes a “scene” by introducing a new reality. It changes the current dynamic.

An active listener responds to the new reality without prejudice, meaning they work with each new comment.

Many personalities get stuck on where the conversation started, or where it’s been. The result is one (or more) of two negative consequences:

  1. The audience is confused. The conversation doesn’t flow naturally. Instead, it bounces back and forth between storylines inside the topic.
  2. A “great line” comes off as forced and unnatural, often sounding self-absorbed and egotistical. It’s forced into dialogue when it no longer fits.

In both cases, the potential of a great moment is missed.

Give Up Ownership

Applying this concept demands each individual give up ownership of a big moment, sacrificing personal achievement for the show. This selfless approach not only improves performance, but it also makes each personality more likable!

In improv, a performer’s goal is to advance the story by contributing an active element,  setting up other performers. This greatly increases the chances of something good happening.

Freddie Mac (The Fox/Fredricton) calls it Always Saying Yes.

Locking in on the “moment” forces talent to stay out of their head and go with what is offered. Just reading this probably sounds scary. At first, it feels like flying on the trapeze without a net. But there is a net!

Your partners are the net! If everyone on the show focuses on moving a story forward, performance becomes a judgment-free zone. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, funny or dumb. Someone pick it up.

Free Association

Some personalities use this as an excuse. They think they’re off the hook for show prep and planning, and that they can simply wing it.

Not so fast.

Active listening and responding spontaneously doesn’t work if there’s nothing to add to the conversation. An important companion of active listening is free association.

Free association is training the brain to trigger key images for every new reality introduced. These images, words, and concepts become a tool chest for conversation.

For example:

Topic: A bank.
Association: Cash machines. Tellers. Wood. People in suits. Small, private offices. A bank robber.

Topic: Peyton Manning
Association: Football, NFL, Super Bowl, TV commercials, Papa John’s, MVP, Dish Network, Colts, Broncos, Tennessee, Manning family, Eli,

Compile a mental inventory of possibilities to use as reference points if and when the time is right. Most of those references will never be used, but having them available makes you a more spontaneous performer.

Many personalities that become proficient in Free Association become annoyed that once they turn it on, they can’t turn it off. Every reference instantly triggers more and more connections. That’s awesome!

Combined to move a story forward, each break has a chance to find a magic moment.

Making Connections

For many comedians, making connections from things not naturally connected is a source of new material. It’s common to hear fans say things like,

How does he/she come up with that? It’s amazing how they think of things like that.

It seems like a tremendous skill, but everyone can learn it. Bridging the gap finds the humor.

Check out these examples from a website that’s populated by fans. They use the term “Crossovers” to connect otherwise disconnected items. Click Here. Warning, some (most) of these aren’t very good, but they provide a glimpse into how the exercise works.

Improve Active Listening

There’s a fun and easy improv training game to help develop these skills.

It’s the One Word Story game. Start with 4 or more players. There’s no limit to how many can play, but you need at least four. If there aren’t enough participants in the show, recruit others.

Start with a topic. The goal is to tell a complete story with each person adding one word to move the story forward, each responding quickly and in context to the reality of the scene when it comes to them.

Here’s an example of it with an improv team:

The nature of the game means that some will contribute a smaller part than others. When your turn comes up, the proper word may be “the” or “a”.

It may be disappointing, thinking that you’re being cheated out of delivering a great line. That’s one of the points of this game. It demonstrates the value of being a team player.

Try it. The game almost always bogs down because of one of four things:

  1. Someone tries to be brilliant and create something instead of just allowing it to happen naturally.
  2. An actor thinks of a great line as the story is being built, but when it’s their turn, their idea makes no sense. But they try it anyway.
  3. A player isn’t listening, and an unexpected twist in the story takes them by surprise, leaving them with nothing to say.
  4. Someone isn’t practicing free association and has no point of reference for the storyline.

This Is NOT Active Listening

Filmmaker Mark W. Gray has a short-form video starring Bill Jones (you may have seen him as the newsman on Glee) that may hit a little too close to home!


You’ll be amazed at how active listening and free association can transform a show.

When each person is actively listening, trust follows, and storylines move forward. The show becomes funnier, more relatable, and is genuinely more likable.

And what’s the value of being likable? It’s the #1 character trait every personality should strive for. That’s a win-win!

By Tracy Johnson

Recognized as one of America’s most innovative radio programmers and managers, Tracy Johnson’s broad background in traditional and digital media spans more than 25 years and has influenced hundreds of radio stations, programmers and personalities. 

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