Linnea Meyer demonstrates the concept.
This month, I was lucky enough to see Scott Adsit (30 Rock's Pete Hornberger) in the flesh during Chicago's Improv Festival. A veteran of Second City, IO, and SNL, Adsit is no stranger to improv, and, alongside Susan Messing during her namesake show at the Annoyance, he brought the house down. How, you ask? He broke the fourth wall! ...Get it?
Ok, poor attempt at a joke. But he did break the "fourth wall" – the imaginary wall between the audience and those on stage – multiple times during the show. For instance, a few beats into a Publix scene, someone in the audience dropped a bottle on the floor, prompting Adsit to shout: "Clean-up on aisle four!"
Funny? Well, maybe you had to be there. But it got me thinking: this stuff goes way beyond theater. We can and should "break the fourth wall" in real-life.
Think about it. Whether we're leading a meeting, speaking to a crowd or giving feedback, there are certain unspoken boundaries between us that we respect – a "fourth wall," so to speak. Breaking those boundaries now and then is one of the most effective ways to better connect with others. Don't believe me? Read on. (Notice how when I address you, I'm breaking the wall of this newspaper. Bam.)
Breaking the fourth wall engages others. On the first day of one of my classes this quarter, the professor kicked off with some good-old-fashioned Socratic cold-calling. The entire class immediately perked up; he had broken down the assumed "wall" between us, and we had to be on our toes and engaged. Outside of class, this fake wall emerges across professional contexts, from presenting to bored audiences or facilitating meetings of people glued to their smartphones. When you return to professional life, try out occasionally breaking that wall, perhaps by asking questions right off the bat and giving your audience no choice but to engage.
Breaking the fourth wall entertains others. Jim's character on The Office constantly breaks the fourth wall, staring straight at the camera as if to commiserate with viewers during awkward moments (even in non-interview scenes). Other comedy shows and films similarly have characters turn to the camera to make us laugh. (Check out 30 Rock's Verizon clip and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, post-credits!) You can do this too! All it takes is going "meta," calling out the foibles of your situation. For instance, if you bring a giant deck into a meeting that you clearly won't be able to get through, or if you can't figure out the A/V equipment during a presentation, try calling out the awkwardness. Your audience has likely already noticed it and will appreciate the joke.
Breaking the fourth wall eases tensions with others. Last quarter, for Professor Linda Ginzel's "The Practice of Leadership in Business," my team interviewed several business leaders. One advocated managing interpersonal tensions by proactively airing them for honest discussion. His M.O. was basically to break down the fourth wall between what people think and what they dare to say, ultimately improving relationships. How often do tensions build within your study groups, professional teams, or significant relationships? When they come up (and they will!), try calling them out and constructively addressing them. The key here is to acknowledge your responsibility in contributing to them; others are much more likely to open up if you do so first. Walls are made to be broken, right?