It's obvious - the HOW trumps the WHAT, every time.
Have you ever played 3-D chess, Star-Trek style? Have you even heard of it? An uncultured child of the eighties, I certainly hadn't, and yet I engaged in an intense round during my improv class last week. The focus of the class was starting scenes with a pre-defined activity, and my more well-rounded classmates gifted me with 3-D chess.
But wait, isn't the premise of improv to not know what activity you're doing when you start? You bet. Good improvisers try not to preconceive any sort of WHAT, from activity to location to character profile, because it really doesn't matter.
What does matter, and what good improvisers focus on from the start, is the HOW. As Mick Napier, the Annoyance Theatre's founder, puts it: "How is everything in improvisation." What is the HOW? The HOW is your character's attitude or worldview as expressed physically and vocally, and it can make or break a scene.
I can play 3-D chess...or, I can play it happy-go-luckily, with a nervous twitch, or like a macho gangster. Having a HOW (attitude) transforms the WHAT (3-D chess) to a meaningful, entertaining, and one-of-a-kind scene. In this way, figuring out your HOW is the key to success onstage...
...and, I'd argue, in real-life. Think about it: the audience around us at Booth and beyond cares less about our WHATs than our HOWs.
Professors: When I worked at HBS, my professors would grade class participation on not only WHAT students said but also HOW they said it. Did they take a stand on the topic, or blandly regurgitate the readings? Did they engage others' opinions, ignore them, or shoot them down? Did they involve the whole class while speaking, or look only at the professor? While Boothies certainly wouldn't make HBS-ers' mistakes, it may be worth asking: HOW are you participating in class?
Interviewers: Remember recruiting (Ick!) and worrying about what the answer was to "crack the case"? Turns out, my spies at the Big Three tell me interviewers care less about WHAT you think the answer is than HOW you get there. How do you organize your approach: memorized frameworks or logical thinking tied to past experiences? How do you handle being stumped: with anxiety or good-natured humility? How do you generally comport yourself: with intense concentration or relaxed curiosity? So if you're recruiting next fall, perhaps spend less time reviewing possible WHATs and more time practicing your HOW.
Anyone: If the above seemed obvious, here's a fun fact to blow your mind: When you're speaking to others – clients, colleagues, peers, etc. – they determine how they feel about you based 55 percent on visual cues (body), 38 percent on vocal cues (voice), and seven percent on verbal cues (content). (Read psychologist Albert Mehrabian's Silent Messages for details.) When it comes to creating an impression, WHAT you say is far less influential than HOW you say it. Not sure where to begin? Try this checklist. For the visual, check posture, movement, hand gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact. For the vocal, check volume, pace, and tone. Are they consistent with each other and the WHAT you're trying to express? (E.g., smiling and speaking excitedly is probably not the best way to deliver bad news.)
From stage to real-life, the HOW trumps the WHAT, hands-down. Don't believe me? Think about this article: WHAT I wrote had value on its own, but HOW I wrote it drove your understanding and enjoyment (Hopefully!).