A boy from Bangalore, India. An engineering undergrad. A self-proclaimed “funny” improv comedian. What could any of these experiences bring to a business school setting?

It turns out there’s a lot in common between improv and business school teachings. At Fuqua, rechanneling my learnings from improv and rekindling my love for it helped me find my voice in the world of business.

My Entry into Improv

I’ve always loved being on the stage, and I’ve been practicing theatre ever since I was five years old. However, everything shifted when I was in my undergrad. I met two of my closest friends through our mutual love for the stage and comedy, and we co-founded “The BisiBeleBois,” India’s youngest improv comedy troupe.

What started with us participating in college improv competitions turned into something much bigger. We performed in sold-out shows across India and recently performed at a show in Chicago. Throughout this improv journey, I’ve experienced the highest highs and lowest lows—from the exciting energy in a sold-out 1,200-person auditorium to the tension of dead silence on a 4-person Zoom show. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, and I’ve learned so much.

Embracing Mistakes and Taking Risks

In her memoir Bossypants, renowned comedian and TV star Tina Fey wrote a list of rules of improv. One particular “rule” Tina re-emphasizes multiple times is “There are no mistakes.”

To reap the rewards of our actions or succeed, we must be willing to fail and make mistakes. I’ve learned to embrace making mistakes subconsciously in my improv journey, and it’s something that I’m very proud of.

Vaishakh Dutt with his professor performing improv at the front of a classroom at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business
Practicing improv with Professor Azhar

Salman Azhar, my Programming for Data Science professor, also practiced improv, and I pitched him the idea of doing some improv in class. How would he react? Would he decline my idea? That was a mistake I was willing to make. Turns out, Professor Salman was more than excited to try some improv, and we had so much fun in class.

A group of MQM students stand at the front of a room, a presentation slide reading "improv 101" is behind them
Hosting an improv workshop for MQM students

Wanting to share the power of improv further, I helped organize an improv workshop. What if no people show up? What if it’s a disaster? Again, by pushing past my comfort zone, I was able to conduct a deeply fulfilling improv workshop for the students of the MQM program.

When you take the first step, you can’t predict the outcome. Be it raising my hand in class or writing this blog, improv has taught me to embrace risk and push beyond my comfort zone.

Storytelling and Knowing Your Audience

Every improv scene needs to follow a story structure, including a set-up, climax, and resolution (or punchline). This applies to all business presentations too. Breaking explanations into stories where you lay out the problem first, build it to a climax with your work, and end with a solid punchline makes every presentation much easier to understand.

In improv, understanding the audience doesn’t change who a performer is, but it helps us express our true selves to them. It’s a nuanced skill that requires practice. No two improv audiences are the same, and from performing for school kids to corporate clients, I’ve practiced refining my storytelling for different audiences based on their expectations. What’s funny to an 8-year-old might not be the same for a corporate manager.

The best way to practice this is to observe yourself and those around you. A high-level executive might not care about the code for a machine-learning model but may care deeply about the actual impact a solution can have on people’s lives. My team put this idea into action for our highly successful show in Chicago, “Once Upon a Time in Bangalore.” It was an Indian Masala movie-themed improv show for a completely American audience. Even though the show centered around Indian movies, we found a way to make it relatable and exciting for American audiences by pulling in American cultural references and behaviors.

Duke Fuqua alumnus Vaishahk Dutt and his improv troupe on stage in Chicago
Thanking the crowd after our improv show in Chicago

Yes, and…

“Yes, and…” is a key principle of improv, and it is especially useful when interacting with team members or clients in a business setting. Improv has taught me to always say “yes” to what the other person is feeling and never negate their input. It’s crucial to make the other person feel acknowledged. Be it a client giving feedback or a teammate suggesting a new idea—always be ready to consider it.

Then comes the next part of “yes, and…”—add onto what the other person has said. Rather than dismissing the other person’s feelings, acknowledge them first and then add perspective. Practicing this is key to not only having a harmonious improv scene, but a cohesive discussion in general.

Just as I would apply this principle to my interaction with others, I also strive to practice the same with myself. It’s not “Yes, I was rejected in this interview,” but “Yes, I was rejected in this interview, AND I’m going to try my best in the next one.” This point of view helps me stay optimistic.

Vaishakh Dutt, a Duke Fuqua alumnus, accepts the artistic student of the year award
Accepting the Artistic Student of the Year award

Adopting this mindset beyond improv has allowed me to truly embrace the Team Fuqua experience. I pushed boundaries, made close friends, and improbably won the Artistic Student of the Year award—something I’d never imagined! Through improv, I found my voice and expressed my authentic self in the business world.

My advice to others hoping to follow this path: embrace mistakes, take risks, and let your true self shine through. The improv mindset will enrich your personal and professional journey in ways you can’t even fathom yet. Always keep exploring, keep growing, and keep finding new facets of yourself to share with the world.