What do improv comedy and business have in common? Producer, actor, and musician Wayne Brady—longtime star of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”—has the answer, and it starts with “yes, and…”
In the world of improv, “yes, and…” is a rule of thumb that guides the action: When your partner starts a scene, you listen and expand upon it. Before you know it, you’re having a conversation, exchanging ideas, and building a community—all skills that small business owners use every day.
A true multi-hyphenate, Wayne has said “yes, and…” throughout his entire career: putting improv comedy on the map, hosting the game show “Let’s Make a Deal,” and opening doors for the next generation of Black comedians and creatives. Now at 50, Wayne is entering the next phase of his career as an entrepreneur, focusing on his personal brand and production company.
In his keynote address at Yelp’s Black in Business Summit, Wayne shares lessons learned from his Emmy Award-winning career, including steps for setting boundaries, marketing yourself, and saying “yes, and…” in life and business.
1. Create a business plan with room to experiment
When I stumbled into improvisation, I was 19. I was completely unencumbered. That’s what’s great about starting out in show business or any business—sometimes your ignorance works to your advantage. I just said, “yes,” without even knowing what “yes, and…” was.
Then [my mentors] taught me the structure of improv and the rules for being able to do it on stage and on film—just like in business. You can have a business that is very go-with-the-flow. But improvisation on stage, just like in life, is meant to be done within a parameter and a certain set of boundaries. Those boundaries give you room to play; it’s like your business plan.
Still, improv was always a skill I used to keep myself sharp. I never really thought of it as an end goal until I ended up on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” [It was] just like the small business owner: Sometimes I think people end up saying, “I want to do this as my business because it’s popular” or because they think it’s a fast way to make money, versus saying: “What am I passionate about? What am I good at? I’m gonna take these things and make it my business.” I didn’t realize I’d been training myself all this time, all these years. Like James Brown said, “If you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready,” and I think that goes for business as well.
2. Say “yes, and…” to your fellow creatives
The “yes, and…” principle is for life. Let’s say you’re in a leadership position at work, whether you’re the CEO or manager, and someone comes to you with a suggestion. As soon as you say no, it’s a hardline that cuts off any flow or creativity—and in a work [setting], it can create a hostile work environment. You may be sitting on the next great idea, but why should I tell you if every time I come in you shut me down?
Likewise, in a relationship, “yes, and…” is a two-way street. You need to listen to each other. You give something, and I’m gonna lay on a response, and before you know it, we’re exchanging ideas. In a business sense, it’s one of the most valuable tools you have.
You also use it for empathy. If you are practicing “yes, and…,” you’re gonna listen to what someone says—you’re not just gonna talk at them. It forces you to be present. It forces mindfulness. And those are things we need in our jobs, especially if you are the owner of a small business.
3. Own who you are as a person—the rest is just noise
You need to have tough skin as a business owner and in show business. You are basically asking the world, “Like me and like what I do.” And then you add the layer of being Black… I was always the only person who looked like me in the room. You end up going through an identity crisis because you’re trying to make these people who don’t look like you laugh. But at the end of the day, you’re still you, with your Black skin and your Black journey. How do you satisfy yourself and the people who look like you? It messes with your head.
The only way I’ve come to peace with that is settling back into [doing] the things that I feel good about. There’s no harm in me doing those things and saying that I’m a proud Black man who happens to be able to do Shakespeare and can turn around and do improv and make a fart joke, and then turn around do a Broadway musical, and turn around and host a game show—and put all that under one roof.
I believe in my product, which is me, and that’s what you’ve got to do in navigating any business space. You have to own who you are as a person. And if you own that, then you can go into making sound business decisions because you’re not gonna listen to all the noise.
[As a business owner, I believe] in truly claiming my artistry and marrying it with my Blackness and being unapologetic. I believe in my product, which is me, and that’s what you’ve got to do in navigating any business space. You have to own who you are as a person. And if you own that, then you can go into making sound business decisions because you’re not gonna listen to all the noise.
4. Remind yourself what you’re working for
You have to establish a work-life balance. I’m a cautionary tale. From the ages of 26 to 36, my mind was completely in the building phase of “I’ve got to blow up. I have to do this work. I have to get my name out there because that’s the way that I can make a foundation for my family.” Well, in the middle of building, if you don’t pay attention to your home life, what are you working for? Luckily, my ex-wife is my best friend in the world, and we have our production company together, but we couldn’t remain married because I wasn’t tending to the fires at home.
We’re indoctrinated with, “If you work hard, and you do everything right, you’re gonna get the American dream.” We all chase that. Chase it—but you have to take care of yourself. If you don’t take care of your mind, if you don’t take care of your heart, if you don’t manage your relationships, and your focus is just making it, all of this will fall apart. You’ll lose the things that you’re working for. And at the end of the day, in my humble opinion, it’s not worth it. Please establish a work-life balance. Find your safety valves. Find a hobby that will let you not work seven days a week and have a heart attack.
5. Choose when and how to hold your boundaries
I’ve always been first in [the room] and had to be the Black representative at that time. In a lot of these spaces, it’s exhausting. You don’t have to carry the weight of your people on your shoulder. A good way to navigate it? Boundaries. You may be in a position where you feel that if you speak up at this board meeting, you may lose your job. You have to decide where and how strong you hold your boundaries and how much that matters to you.
I decided a little while ago that I’m gonna hold my boundaries stronger than I ever have in my life. I choose to not let you step into my personal space and say things about me. That is exhausting in of itself, but if you’re in a position where you can do that, I would do that. If you can’t, that’s its own different story. That’s the story of being Black in America.
6. Study human nature, not just your craft
I hate networking. I’ll just say it. I have a LinkedIn profile—I’ve been on there twice. I’ve used social anxiety and being an introvert as a reason for [not going to parties in] 30-odd years in show business. That’s to my detriment. When you see your favorite actor [on screen], most deals are done on the golf course. They’re done at parties. They’re done in a social environment. They’re done where people feel good about each other.
Part of being a good business person is not just being good at your craft; it’s being good at the study of human nature.
In a [business] setting, you can’t just expect people to want to work with you because they like your work. Part of being a good business person is not just being good at your craft, it’s being good at the study of human nature. You have to network so that they know who you are. Anyone can look at a business card or look at the outside of a building, but they need to know you because at the end of the day, they’re doing business with you.
7. The best leaders empower their team
Being a leader, the best thing you can do is empower your team. Because if you try to do it all yourself, you’re not just asking for a breakdown of your business. You’re setting up a room where no one wants to bring you any ideas. A good leader says: What are we doing? Empower the people that work with you to make good decisions and to bring those decisions back to you, and you can help implement them.
I was taught in the school of improv that if you look good and you succeed, then I bathe in the reflected sunlight, and then I look good too. If you do that with your team, you can’t lose.
When you are a tyrant at work and you don’t empower the people under you, you’ve taken away their confidence. I was taught in the school of improv that if you look good and you succeed, then I bathe in the reflected sunlight, and then I look good too. If you do that with your team, you can’t lose.
For more insights from Wayne, watch his keynote session below from Yelp’s second annual Black in Business Summit—now available on-demand along with all other sessions from the day.
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