Mary Lemmer of Improve: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Notice your facial expressions. Especially in a Zoom-world, we must rely more heavily on facial expressions to indicate emotion and intent. 9 times out of 10 people think they’re smiling when they aren’t. So smile, and actually smile! Pay attention to what you’re doing with your face. You can always practice in front of a mirror!

We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Lemmer.

Mary is the founder of Improve, a company that improves peoples’ lives with techniques combining improv comedy, behavioral research, mindfulness, and neuroscience. As Mary likes to say “we give people M&Ms laced with vitamins. They taste good and they’re good for you!” In her TED talk “How improv can improve your leadership and life” she shares more about the importance and impact improv.

Mary has worked with tens of thousands of leaders and companies to improve innovation, problem solving, growth and team culture. She started her first company at age 14, did early stage investing, was a Director at a Silicon Valley unicorn, wrote a book and has performed on the same stages as comedy legends. She graduated from the University of Michigan and studied improv comedy at The Second City in Chicago, Upright Citizen’s Brigade in NYC, The Groundlings out of LA, among other improv theatres.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

The abridged version of my backstory goes a little something like this. I started my first business, a gelato business, when I was just barely a teenager. That peaked my entrepreneurial interests and I continued to follow that thread into college, when I’d find researchers at the labs and convince them to commercialize their technology (and to let me help them turn it into a business), while running my own business, and taking jobs at other startups I admired and could learn from. Once I graduated college I started working at a venture capital firm, investing in early stage companies, while, still, running my own business. I was running a zillion miles an hour and suffering from extreme anxiety, especially when things wouldn’t go as planned (which is basically 90% of the time!) I was experiencing panic attacks, fainting episodes, and illness, so much so that I’d end up in the hospital. So, after one too many panic attacks, I decided to take a break, a real break, and then signed up for an improv comedy class, as an attempt to give myself something fun to do and scratch the acting/performance itch I’d had my entire life, but was always too shy to act on. That class changed my life. For the first time I felt relaxed, free, and not overthinking and worried about saying/doing the ‘right’ thing, because, in improv, everything is right. There are no mistakes. That was game changing for me. Over time, I noticed that practicing improv comedy was helping me improve in my leadership, my work with teams, and my life. I started teaching “Improv 4 Entrepreneurs” workshops to startup accelerators and saw significant improvements in entrepreneur’s pitching, presence, and ability to communicate their ideas to investors and their teams. I started developing techniques to improve with improv and used them with teams. Fast forward, and for the past ten years I have now empowered thousands of leaders and teams to improve with improv. I gave the TED talk “How improv can improve your leadership and life” and have worked with companies and conferences around the world to share these techniques.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Just one?! Gosh! I began my career when I was 13 and often worked several jobs at the same time, so I have a lot of material to pull from! The first story that pops up is in my first business, the gelato business, we were catering a high school graduation party. I wasn’t yet old enough to drive, so my mom drove, with the trailer and gelato cart in tow. The event itself was a series of unfortunate events. On the drive there the lid of the cart flew off (I guess without us noticing), so we had nothing to cover the cart. It was summer in Michigan so the mosquitoes were particularly happy there was an uncovered sugary treat at their disposable. The woman hosting the event was not particularly in a joyful mood. She demanded we push the cart on the grass, down a hill in their backyard, and since it had recently rained, the cart eventually got stuck. Imagine a 13-year old scrawny girl trying to push this catering cart up a grassy hill, followed by a pack of hungry mosquitoes. The cherry on top was that on the way home, while driving in the dark, I looked out the rearview mirror and our napkins were flying in the back behind us. Somehow the napkin dispenser got exposed and the napkins were exercising their freedom and flying in the wind along the freeway (obviously we stopped, as we were horrified we were unintentionally littering). I’d say that is pretty interesting.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Hakuna Matata” — it means no worries, for the rest of your days 🙂

When I was a kid I LOVED the movie “The Lion King”, to the point of imagining I had pet lions. I would dream about my lion pack, Simba, Nala, walking to school with me in the small town in Michigan where I spent my early childhood.

This phrase was so relevant in my life, even though I didn’t always abide by it. I’m a pretty anxious person. I’ve literally passed out over 30 times from anxiety, so maybe ‘pretty anxious’ is an understatement. As I have gotten older and especially when I started practicing improv comedy, this philosophy really started to resonate and really help me improve my anxiety and way of life. Improv comedy is also a “worry free zone”. There are no mistakes in improv, and when I brought that way of thinking and living in for myself, my life improved tremendously.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who have supported me along the way. It starts with my parents and my grandmothers. My mom and dad were so instrumental in starting my first business. I wasn’t able to drive, and they would drive me to all of these different events and help me set up my business. They were really encouraging and supportive of me exploring this entrepreneurial itch of mine!

One particular story I’ll share — my parents owned this big red conversion van, and at the time, that’s how my catering cart would get to different events. My dad built these wooden ramps to push the cart up to get in the van. Him and my mom would drive me to the events and then I’d serve straight from the van, or we’d take the cart out. I needed their help with the cart, since it outweighed me by quite a bit! They drove me to sports tournaments, art festivals, I did a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina relief once. Each year they’d help me set up at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. I’d stand there all day giving out samples and selling cups. They helped arrange everything and my paternal grandmother would invite me to stay at her house nearby and stay up late with me to count the money. My maternal grandmother also showed so much support along the way.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

We’re human. We’re social creatures. Being physically together is satisficing biological needs to communicate, be in communicate, hug (though, not without consent, especially in the workplace!) There is so much communication that happens nonverbally with facial expressions and body language, and those are best experienced in person.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

When we’re not in the same space it doesn’t exactly feel like we’re together, in 3D, and we miss out on those nonverbal cues. How someone carries themselves, their pace, how fast they’re breathing, hand gestures, facial expressions — these all add the conversation and connection. It’s also way easier to be distracted when we’re looking at someone on a screen versus across the table. It’s hard to really make eye contact. Be honest, how often are you actually looking at yourself in the video chat, versus the person your with? And even if you are actually looking at the person you’re with, they might not be able to even tell, because they’re looking at you. It’s really hard to make eye contact when we’re not in the same space, and our eyes hold so much information about what’s going on for us at a given moment. In improv we have a saying, “if you’re lost for words, look in your scene partners’ eyes.” The eyes hold a lot of emotion and when we make eye contact with someone it’s like we’re looking into their soul and really connecting with them. Virtually, it’s really hard to make that connection.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Notice your facial expressions. Especially in a Zoom-world, we must rely more heavily on facial expressions to indicate emotion and intent. 9 times out of 10 people think they’re smiling when they aren’t. So smile, and actually smile! Pay attention to what you’re doing with your face. You can always practice in front of a mirror!

2. Use your tone. If you speak monotone it’s really boring to listen to. Use variability in pitch and change up your tone to go along with what you’re saying. Practice adding variety to your tone and then be aware while in meetings what your voice is doing. Are you inflecting? Are you endings statements as statements and not questions? (A very common tactic!)

3. Listen! How often have you been in a virtual meeting when either no one is talking or everyone is talking at the same time? You’re not alone. With internet speed differences, freezing faces over Zoom, these challenges are quite common and make it even more difficult to communicate with one another. The temptations to talk over each other are even greater, usually unintentionally, because it’s harder to read the nonverbal cues that someone is done talking. So we need to practice listening even more, and take our listening skills to new heights.

In improv we practice listening in an exercise called “First Word, Last Word” and have a conversation using the last word someone else says as our first word of whatever we’re going to say next. Doing this forces us to listen fully to what someone else is saying (rather than start thinking about what we’re going to say before the other person even finishes talking). Try this in your meetings. Listen fully, without prematurely formulating your response. Your conversations will be richer and you won’t have to repeat yourself a thousand times because no real listening is actually taking place.

4. Say what you see. Be human. If your dog is barking or scratching at your leg, don’t just grin and bear it. Your virtual colleague may not see the dog scratching at your leg, but they will see the grimace on your face that looks like you either really don’t want to be in the meeting or you really need to use the bathroom.

5. Use humor! At the peak of laughter is the height of listening. Using humor is a great way to relate to and entertain your audience. And remember, tone and facial expressions are key to incorporating humor. A monotone joke doesn’t typically land as well as one that has variability of tone and animated facial expression, unless, of course, that’s part of the bit.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

Technical connection issues — internet going down or freezing, sound challenges.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

Zoom has been great for us!

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

One that, at least virtually, can send you feedback real time about how you’re coming across and the level of understanding on the other end. Something that can tell based on all the people involved and communicating, if they’re understanding and how they’re perceiving the communication interaction. Basically a mindreading technology to improve self-awareness and understanding in communications online.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

Yes, I think so. It would make it a lot easier and effective to communicate with each other.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

100% of our interactions have moved to phone or video calls and email and text messaging.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

I actually think it’s easier to give honest feedback virtually. The stakes are lower. Think about it. It’s easier to break up with someone via text message, then phone, then in person. When we’re not actually in front of someone physically feel more confident talking about tough topics. We don’t have to face, head on, the scary possible negative or angry reaction that could lie on the other side.

For giving honest feedback virtually I recommend starting by asking, for example, “Are you open to hearing some feedback?” which invites the other person into the conversation, versus out of nowhere sharing criticism, which, when done in that manner oftentimes puts the other person on the defensive.

Pay attention to your tone and facial expressions! Especially virtually, tone and facial expression are really important because body language doesn’t come across as much.

Be honest. Don’t sugar coat the situation. Don’t dance around it.

Practice empathy! This is where tone and facial expression can really come into play here. Be empathetic toward what is going on for that other person. Ask before assuming.

For example, If someone is missing deadlines or their work has been decreasing in quality, say “I’ve noticed the past couple weeks you’ve missed some deadlines. What’s going on?” This gives someone the opportunity to share what might be affecting their work performance. For instance, “My child has been sick at home and I’ve been struggling to get enough focused time to work on projects.” We don’t know until we ask. So don’t make assumptions. Share objective observations and then allow the other person to respond.

Thank the person for the conversation. Recognizing “these aren’t always easy topics to discuss, so thank you for your attention and participation in this conversation.”

Bonus points if you ask team members “how can I best support you?” especially if you have the bandwidth and resources to support them.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

Check in with each other! Even if it’s just a text or email once in awhile with a funny video or story you heard, that helps mimic the social dynamics we had (and often miss) from the workplace. The water cooler talk, the jokes, the laughter while getting lunch together.

Schedule time for fun! Take your team to a virtual improv class, go see a virtual show together and then Zoom afterwards to talk about it, schedule fun activities that you want to do together to keep some social interaction with each other.

Most importantly, take a few minutes at each team meeting to share what’s going on in your life. I recommend taking this improv-inspired exercise called “3 Things” to inspire connecting during meetings. You can use a different prompt each time, like “3 things you did over your weekend”, “3 things you’re watching on Netflix” or “3 things you’re struggling with this week” and ask people to answer. It doesn’t take long and is a great way to have some social dialogue and learn about each other’s lives while working remotely.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That everyone practice improv comedy. Commit to a weekly class (you could do so with Improve 🙂 for 3-months. I think it would improve peoples’ self-awareness, empathy and compassion, joy, and resilience in ways that will benefit them and those around them.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit our website, and join Club Improve to get daily improv comedy exercises designed to improve your life sent to your email and weekly virtual live drop-in sessions to start improv’ing your life with humor.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.


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