Make Better Small Talk by Investing in Jumping Off Points

This past weekend, I took a workshop with Tara DeFrancisco. She made the joke that improvisers are fearless and confident on stage, but can’t stomach the thought of having a conversation with a stranger after the show.

Behind every joke is a bit of truth, this one especially, since I fall into that same paradox. And if Tara and I both feel that way, my guess would be that we’re not the only ones.

What’s interesting, though, is that having a killer improv scene and a memorable conversation come down to the same skill – identifying and investing in “jumping off points.”

A jumping off point is any part of an improv scene that is interesting enough to be the main focus of the scene going forward (aka “the game” aka “the first unusual thing”).

Understanding game or finding jumping off points from the UCB comedy improvisation manual

It doesn’t take any special improv training to get to that first jumping off point. The real challenge lies in identifying that interesting thing in the first few lines of dialogue. And if you can’t find it, you end up in a scene like this:

Player 1: I got into Harvard.
Player 2: I only got into clown school.
Player 1: I can’t wait to join a frat and party it up.
Player 2: It’s gonna be crazy drinking your first beer.
Player 1: Oh man, I bet there will be so many babes.

In the example, the improvisers blow through three different jumping off points – the differences between college and clown school, joining a fraternity, and drinking alcohol for the first time – which are all good enough to sustain an entire scene.

Instead, they make it hard on themselves by inventing newer and newer ideas rather than investing in what they already created. This type of scene ends up going nowhere because it ends without any of the improvisers actually saying anything. They’re just talking at each other, not to each other.

Ben Noble discovering jumping off points in the STL Style show

Photo Credit: Julia Madras

Conversations also have jumping off points, and both peoples’ ability to identify and invest in them determines how good the chat will be.

Talking to people is easy when both of you are listening and yes and-ing. When you identify that jumping off point, ask questions, and share your own point of view, conversation will flow naturally and lead you to the next topic.

Conversation breaks down when we stop listening to each other and miss jumping off points. We’re too busy in our own heads thinking about what we’re going to say next rather than just responding to whatever our partner has just said.

If you’re constantly having to dredge up new conversation topics and keep saying, “so…” chances are you missed the jumping off point. Like the improvisers in the example above, you make it hard on yourself because you keep inventing rather than investing in what you’ve already created.

Next time you find yourself at the bar after a show, instead of hiding behind your phone and your online friends, try using those same skills you just used on stage to invest in your jumping off points and make a new friend in real life.

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