Ass. Prof. Paul Smeets has an unusual hobby that also boosts creativity

Paul Smeets (front left) and the players from PhD-Improv
Paul Smeets (front left) and the players from PhD-Improv

Assistant professor in Finance, Paul Smeets, has a hobby that’s not just fun, it’s also useful for his work. The prestigious publication, Nature, is also convinced this is great way for scientists to boost creativity.

Paul Smeets is an improv player. “Improv is theatre without a script,” Paul explains. The group puts together a performance on the basis of input from the audience. Paul is a member of 2 improv groups: ‘PhD Improv’ is an English language group for academics and Paul’s main group is Broodje Giraffe (Giraffe Sandwich), a more experienced Dutch group.

Unlocking the creative inner self

According to a recent article in Nature, improv is a great way for scientists to boost creativity. “I saw this first hand when I was teaching PhD students at the University of Toulouse,” Paul recalls enthusiastically. He was in Toulouse giving a week-long course in economics. “After a full day’s lectures and tuition, I decided to do an improv session with the group of 10 students. It was great to see how the students changed. First, they were really nervous and very reserved. Some were even scared they might fail. But in improv there’s no right or wrong way and certainly no failure. This is a new notion for scientists, who are used to everything being black and white. Within just a week the students completely opened up, came out of their comfort zone and really grew as individuals. The transformation was amazing. And they really enjoyed the experience.”

Improve your presentation skills

“I’ve seen lots of impressive, but unfortunately rather boring scientific presentations over the years,” says Paul. “Improv gives players a unique set of techniques to improve their communication skills and make presentations much more accessible to a broader audience. Gestures and emotion, for example, are just 2 of the tools you learn how to apply in improv.”

“No buts” to increase career prospects

“One of the things you learn very quickly when you start doing improv is that “but” is unacceptable,” Paul says with a smile.”It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard that little word kill an idea, or destroy presentation. In improv we’re ‘yes-men and women’. The answer is simply “yes, let’s have a go” and no longer, ‘but it might not work’. This can really have a positive effect on how someone thinks and how they come across. And will ultimately benefit their career prospects.”

Fancy having a go?

It’s still very experimental and Paul hasn’t yet had the chance to try improv out with his own students in Maastricht. “It would be great to get a broader group together for students and staff,” says Paul. “Anyone can do it, and everyone who’s tried it will tell you how much they’ve benefitted from improv. Improv teaches to be aware of how you present yourself and how to get your message across. And you get to meet lots of interesting, open-minded people.”


Paul would love to hear from anyone interested in having a go at improv. Contact him at
Or come and see improv in action on 2 July 2014. Take a look at the PhD Improv facebook page for details.
Dutch speakers can check out the Broodje Giraf facebook page.

Do you have a story to tell?

Paul responded to our call to all SBE colleagues to tell us about their second life. Do you have an interesting hobby or achievement outside your work? Let us know, and maybe your story will appear on