Applying improv to business, storytelling, and what-have-you (part 4)

See part 1 here of my experience at the AIN2006 Applied Improv conference. See part 2 here and see part 3 here.

This was the first time in a long time I’d attended a conference where I really didn’t know anyone (nor was I presenting), and as an introvert, this was pretty challenging. Factor in the general distance in tone and aim from my typical conference setting and you’ll see why I was half-in, half-out of the whole thing. Given that it was local, I passed on a lot of the social stuff and instead came home; I didn’t feel the need to be in a hotel ballroom at 8:00 am for the first presentations. I picked carefully what sessions I would go to; of course that means I had few opportunities to meet people and interact casually and become more connected to the sessions. It’s a balance for us introverts; one day I happened to come down the stairs with people and end up joining them for lunch, just because of timing; the next day I came back after lunch a few minutes early and stood by myself for a while before the sessions started (this happened at the breaks as well).

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not blaming anyone for that and I’m comfortable with letting it happen. I’m extremely fortunate that most professional things I go there are more people I know and want to talk with than I will have the chance to.

The only reason to even go into this introvert perspective on a conference is to frame my overall reaction to the way the group interacted; I was an observer as well as a participant (as a good ethnographer should be).

This group was very earnest and enthusiastic, with lots of affirmation, applause, and laughter. When many of the people in attendance are performers and/or facilitators, the dynamic between presenter and audience skews pretty dramatically from the norm. Example 1: in the storytelling presentation, someone asked a question about how we remember stories, and someone in the audience spoke up and said there was a useful exercise she would like us all try – speaking the words to Happy Birthday “go ahead and do it…”. It illustrated her response, but the dynamic was unusual. She was asking the group to do something; that is normally reserved for the presenter. Example 2: in the session on polarity management vs. problem solving, someone offered to spend a few minutes after the session formally wrapped to share some thing she had heard a professor for University of Toronto say about the concept.

The encouragement from others gave some sessions the feeling of a Patti Smith concert; where quiet comments directed at the presenter were spoken from time to time (“Andrew, you rock”). Although some presenters were taken aback by this attitude in general and found difficulty in getting through their material. Some talks were repeats of other talks given elsewhere – to non-improv audiences, and the presenters seemed surprised when things didn’t work as they had expected. “Oh, I forgot you are all improvisers” was a comment I heard a couple of times.

There was some funny jargon where everything was a type of work. “Let’s start off on the chairs and then we’ll move to some floor work.” “After this introduction we’ll get into our story work” – just like Michael Richards informing us on Letterman that he had to do some “personal work.”

The last day was held as “open space”; unscheduled time slots that could be claimed by anyone who showed up and wanted to run something, very much in the spirit of the unconference (as I suppose, was this participation ethic that many audience folk brought with them).

In the storytelling session, one person got up and told a story as part of a group exercise. Her story dealt with an experience she had facilitating a workshop (ya see what I mean?) and was interestingly characteristic of much of this group, I believe. In her story, there was some tension between some of the audience members who wanted another participant’s noisy child to leave. The mother of the child was living in her car and was desperate to be in this session (the goal of which was transformancing or something I hadn’t heard of). The person telling this story related how they were in this situation and being asked to make a decision that seemed impossible, but rather than acting she allowed herself to “go wide” and remain “in the field” and just then a man walked up and offered to look after the child, solving the problem. The emphasis of the story seemed to be the external spiritual force out there somewhere that changed the situation to a successful one. There was no acknowledgment of personal choice or responsibility, and also no pleasure in the mysteries of fate, but credit given to an inner peaceful state that let it all happen. It was a fascinating way of processing an experience and if I allowed myself to get past my negative reactions to the way the story was told (a bias against anything too New Age) I could somewhat identify with how she saw things. But I would never process something that way, let alone relate it that way.

Given the pretty vast cultural differences with the folks I encounter in design, research, marketing, and strategy circles, (where, for example, you’d never see the font Comic Sans being used) I’m fascinated by the notion that there’s some real overlap with the services being offered and the types of organizations we’re all working in.


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