Posts tagged “improv”

Start Spreadin’ The News: Steve in New York, NY

Urban Camouflage, New York, June 2004

I’m off to New York next week for a handful of speaking engagements. If you’re going to be at any of them, please let me know!

The Box That Is Not A Box (But Is Still A Box)

Chip and Dan Heath write in Fast Company about the power of constraints

Keith Sawyer, author of the insightful book Group Genius, spent years studying the work of jazz groups and improvisational theater ensembles. He found that structure doesn’t hamper creativity; it enables it. When improv comedians take the stage, they need a concrete stimulus: “What if Romeo had been gay?” The stimulus can’t be: “Go on, make me laugh, funnyman.”

“Improv actors are taught to be specific,” Sawyer says. “Rather than say, ‘Look out, it’s a gun!’ you should say, ‘Look out, it’s the new ZX-23 laser kill device!’ Instead of asking, ‘What’s your problem?’ say, ‘Don’t tell me you’re still pissed off about that time I dropped your necklace in the toilet.'” The paradox is that while specificity narrows the number of paths that the improv could take, it makes it easier for the other actors to come up with the next riff.

This is something I’ve emphasized in my talks on improv and ethnography (which always end up being a workshop on improv/ ethnography/ design/ creativity)…the energy that comes from working on problems that are extremely constrained along some axes (i.e., each successive utterance must begin with a successive letter of the alphabet, from A through Z) and utterly open along other axes (i.e., what the actors say can or be anything they want).

Connecting07: Connecting The Play of Improv with The Work of Ethnographic Research

Here’s the presentation from last week’s IDSA/ICSID conference.


We spent about 1/3 of the time doing improv games (which may be “you had to be there”) and about 1/3 in discussion (in which the audio favors me over the audience), but maybe you can skip past some of those parts.


Connecting07 – Improv and Ethnography

If you are coming to ICSID/IDSA Connecting 07 in San Francisco later this month, I’ll be giving a presentation entitled Connecting the Play of Improv with the Work of Ethnographic Research on Friday, October 19, from 5:45pm – 6:30pm in the Fairmont Hotel, Crystal Room.

In the meantime, you can read more about an earlier version of this presentation

To the rest of us in the audience, both exercises were quite funny. Most of the participants couldn’t figure out at the time what we were laughing at.

All of which suggests that Improv is a powerful means of engaging with other human beings that is both immersive and “flow-like.”

Portigal then went on to define activities associated with ethnography, focusing on the guided interview process in particular.

He concluded his talk by identifying the key “overlaps” between the two disciplines:

* Balancing a “plan” with being in the moment
* “Yes and…” (Using positive reinforcement of the other’s statements to keep the conversation going.)

Dan Soltzberg and I will be attending the entire conference and we’d love to meet with folks to talk about how our work in uncovering user insights can help drive design and business decisions in your organization. Do let us know!

Catch Your Dreams Before They Slip Away

Last weekend I went to an audition for a newly forming troupe from Blue Blanket Improv. I had done a full two hours of improv games for a really long time, and I was definitely rusty, but it was a lot of fun. I was hesitant to attend because there’s a pretty strong focus to the group – non-profit community events, and performances. I’m not sure I care that much about either. With that emphasis on performances comes a need to be funny for an audience. When I interviewed Chris Miller about improv and creativity, he noted the difference between improv and improv comedy, and this is definitely about improv comedy. But Chris also encouraged me to go to the audition, simply for a chance to play. I’m glad I did, because it was absolutely a chance to play, but it also clarified something for me: that I am fascinated by the problem-solving aspect of improv games…the need to follow the constraints of the game (i.e., a one-minute scene that is improvised, then repeated in 30-second, 15-second, 7.5-second and 3 second versions), be collaborative, and be creative. I love the laughter that comes from the participants in the activity (and even if you aren’t in the scene, you are going to get up and do it yourself next, so you share in that creative act) but I’m not so turned on by improv as a form of entertainment for those on the other side of the proscenium.

I got the call last night telling me that I passed the audition and was invited to join the troupe. I had to decline; I love the process and the way they’ve set up a structure for trust and creativity and collaboration, but I can’t go down the road of committing to performing for others right now.

It was sort of a stunning decision to make; I can imagine at various points in my life I would have given anything to be part of something like this, especially at this nascent stage (essentially they are building a new troupe from scratch in our community).

The day before that call I had seen a posting up at CCA for writing classes at
Killing My Lobster

This class is a six-week boot camp where the main requirement is for you to write funny and keep writing funny. If you’ve always had a curiousity [sic] for comedy writing, had funny ideas and have wondered “what would happen if I actually took this to the next level,” and enjoy learning and creating in a fun environment this may be the class for you. The class will culminate in a live reading of your favorite material.

I really enjoy sketch comedy as an audience and this class (sadly already in progress) sounds really cool. It’s another set of creative problem solving tools with some very different constraints and philosophies than improv, but perhaps a valuable exploration in expanding storytelling skills.

And finally, a piece about laughter and social context in the NYT today.

The women put in the underling position were a lot more likely to laugh at the muffin joke (and others almost as lame) than were women in the control group. But it wasn’t just because these underlings were trying to manipulate the boss, as was demonstrated in a follow-up experiment.

This time each of the women watched the muffin joke being told on videotape by a person who was ostensibly going to be working with her on a task. There was supposed to be a cash reward afterward to be allocated by a designated boss. In some cases the woman watching was designated the boss; in other cases she was the underling or a co-worker of the person on the videotape.

When the woman watching was the boss, she didn’t laugh much at the muffin joke. But when she was the underling or a co-worker, she laughed much more, even though the joke-teller wasn’t in the room to see her. When you’re low in the status hierarchy, you need all the allies you can find, so apparently you’re primed to chuckle at anything even if it doesn’t do you any immediate good.

“Laughter seems to be an automatic response to your situation rather than a conscious strategy,” says Tyler F. Stillman, who did the experiments along with Roy Baumeister and Nathan DeWall. “When I tell the muffin joke to my undergraduate classes, they laugh out loud.”

Mr. Stillman says he got so used to the laughs that he wasn’t quite prepared for the response at a conference in January, although he realizes he should have expected it.

“It was a small conference attended by some of the most senior researchers in the field,” he recalls. “When they heard me, a lowly graduate student, tell the muffin joke, there was a really uncomfortable silence. You could hear crickets.”

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.

Applying improv to business, storytelling, and what-have-you (part 3)

See part 1 here of my experience at the AIN2006 Applied Improv conference. See part 2 here and part 4 here.

Carla Rieger (who positions herself as a motivation speaker and “Artistry of Change Expert”) led a half-day version of a full-day seminar entitled Captivate Your Audience Through Stories. Stories are memorable, she says, because they are an (imaginary) kinesthetic experience that goes into long-term memory more efficiently.

Carla alluded to four different styles of storytellers, although we didn’t get a ton of detail about the differences (the titles are quite descriptive, however).

  1. asserter
  2. demonstrator
  3. contemplator
  4. narrator

The workshop wasn’t about storytelling in general, but applying it specifically to training and facilitation (which may have been a common factor for many of the participants, but is still a bit narrow).

Carla couldn’t define to our satisfaction the difference between an anecdote and a story, but she was distinguishing between the two. An anecdote seemed to be a short relating of some sequence of events, whereas a story at the very least led to a concluding point.

She outlined a 5-part story structure

  1. Set the platform: the status quo (Dorothy is in Kansas, in black and white).
  2. Tilt the platform: a new element or conflict (the tornado takes Dorothy to Oz)
  3. Consequences: the bulk of the narrative (Dorothy goes to Emerald City to see the Wizard)
  4. Getting Back to Stability: a new heroic act (Dorothy melts the witch and goes back to the Wizard with the broom)
  5. New Platform: the new status quo; what is different as a result of this story (Dorothy is back home and there’s no place like it)

Individually we brainstormed ideas for stories, then got into groups of 3 and picked one to tell each other. Our team listened and then fed us back our story in those five parts. This was pretty hard. My story (about a strange movie-going experience) normally ends on a punch-line, but suddenly I had to add a denouement; I really wasn’t prepared for that. Others told stories with multiple tilts. The point was to figure out how to evolve the story so that it did fit into the structure, of course. Oh, and we also acted out the story through a series of tableaux (one for each stage in the structure); it wasn’t exactly clear what this provided. Others reported varying experiences with the actual improv part of the exercise. I had some small insight about the challenges of the structure; since the final step was very conceptual and hard to act, it said something back to us about the challenge of creating that part of the story.

Next steps, after the workshop, were for all of us to then try and write up our story (and Carla suggested we actually tell the story into a voice recorder and type that up, for a more natural flow). She offered to review our stories and send us a few presentations and PDFs if we sent something in to her. I think this Friday is the deadline and I’m not sure I have the motivation to write the story up; I’ve got a bunch of stories I feel I’ve committed to telling in one form or another. But we’ll see.

The notion of a proper structure for a story is interesting. Certainly one has to learn a basic vocabulary before starting to tweak it or personalize it. I feel confident about my own storytelling abilities, but they are not trained or schooled; I don’t know the principles and can’t improve my stories by focusing on specific tasks.

I noticed Nicolas Nova’s recent post about story flows, where the action of famous stories are graphically represented. It would be interesting to look at these in terms of Carla’s structure and see if there’s any alignment between these models.

Applying improv to business, storytelling, and what-have-you (part 2)

See part 1 here of my experience at the AIN2006 Applied Improv conference. See part 3 here and part 4 here.

The Innovise Guys (Doug Stevenson and Gregg Fraley) ran a session that was described as an introduction to Innovisation(tm), although I’m not really sure what it was specifically about. They started after lunch and so things were late. And trying to facilitate a room full of facilitators was challenging, since everyone wanted to take the discussion in new ways, and each bit of facilitator-ese they offered up (“okay, let’s rock and roll, since we’re getting low on time”) was countered with a participant’s own facilitator-speak (“Gregg, if I could just honor that rock with some roll of my own, and ask….”). It wasn’t entirely clear what the session was supposed to accomplish; I think their idea was the power in combining improv activities with stuff from Creative Problem Solving (you may remember I considered attending their conference earlier this year). The exercises didn’t seem to work, however. In one, the group was given a problem (“help me find an inexpensive fuel-efficient car”) and asked to throw out words. Some words applied to the problem but by design the suggestions drifted into the random and silly. Then we stopped and looked at the list of words and use them, one-by-one, as seeds for generating actual solutions. In another, an improv game was staged where the actors were product development people trying to slogan, package, advertise, and create a jingle for a new cereal product. They were instructed to respond with the usual “yes, and…” but with extra enthusiasm. And we the audience were supposed to…do something…build on these ideas somehow. The whole approach left me somewhat cold (and soggy in milk?) since I’m not convinced coming up with ideas is anyone’s big challenge. Connecting those ideas to an actual problem, prioritizing ideas, and sorry for being obvious here but ensuring those ideas have some resonance with the people you are targeting them at…those are the tough problems. Play-acting as marketing people may be fun and feel creative, but it doesn’t automatically solve the right problems the right way. Maybe I’m being too literal and the point is to think of the right setting to use this stuff. It’s one thing, then, to offer facilitation tips for meetings, but another to frame it as a trademarked methodology for innovation.

Although they were charming and personable as facilitators, I still don’t buy into the whole creative-consultant-as-clown routine. These guys have created characters for themselves, gently, with a caricature-style logo (above, although neither of them have brown hair any longer, so…), and matching outfits (big black bowling shirts with slogans stitched on ’em, baggy khaki pants, and matching brightly colored silly shoes). Why?

Applying improv to business, storytelling, and what-have-you (part 1)

See part 2 here of my experience at the AIN2006 Applied Improv conference. See part 3 here and part 4 here.

Last week I went to AIN2006, the annual conference of the Applied Improv Network. This was my first time attending any such conference, and I was a little uncertain what to expect. Indeed, since the event was local I hedged my bets somewhat by picking carefully what sessions I wanted to attend and passing on the banquet/comedy night/scavenger hunt/etc. More on the overall experience later.

I showed up (faint with hunger, and late since I was at school that evening) at the end of the pre-conference day for an evening of mixer stuff. The energy was very positive as different people led the room (of maybe 60 people) through a range of exercises. In one, we had a bingo card with different personal characteristics (“likes country and western,” “allergic to cats,” “commutes across a bridge”) and we had to fill the cells with names. Good ice-breaker, as people would exchange with each other rather than name-and-bolt. Although there was some eager shoving that was a bit surprising. In another game we had to close our eyes, fold our arms to our body, and walk to the center of the room, and when you encountered someone else you could attract or repel, eventually we ended up as a coagulated mob in the middle of the room. This was very challenging; both to keep your eyes closed, and to allow an incredible violation of social distance. Indeed, by having my eyes closed gave me some permission to violate the norm, since I could somehow surrender any responsibility. When I was surrounded by people on either side and could not choose where to move, I had to accept that other people were touching me, and just let it happen. I was intrigued to notice where my own boundaries were, and what the triggers were (or mitigating factors), but much of the debrief emphasized the sensual nature of experience, with lots of giggling. Perhaps many of those folks knew each other and had spent the day together, and were at a different point of trust than I was, having just walked in.

The sessions I attended were less experiential than that (although all were far more participatory and physical than anything I’ve done at any other conference). Andrew Welch talked about improv applied to quadrants (one person next to me asked me sotto voce “what’s a quadrant?”). I don’t know if that term is local to the improv world, to the type of leadership consulting Andrew does, or what. Quadrants in this case refers to some 2 x 2 model, two perpendicular axes that lead to a four quadrant model representing behavior, goals, personality types, or whatever.

Andrew asked the group (most of whom seemed to be some type of applied improv training facilitator consultant) what the challenges are in “our” industry that don’t seem to go away. And the answers were amazingly consistent with what I’ve heard in any sort of consulting discussion (design, user experience, usability, ethnography, etc.). Clients ask for the world, but have no time. Clients want to change culture, or behavior, but have no budget. This dovetailed into an exercise about how to explain and sell services to a prospective client; there’s something very universal about these challenges, although as usual, the default is to beat up clients for not “getting it” and I’m pretty tired of that rhetoric.

Andrew introduced the difference between a problem, and a polarity. If there’s no upside, then it’s a problem. If there is an upside, it’s a polarity. Take gossip for an example – there are benefits to gossip; there’s a reason people do it and get something out of it. A problem, in his framework, was something like a conveyor belt that wasn’t wide enough to accommodate the pizza. Cultural issues were almost always going to be polarities, it seems.

Problem solving:

  • Working towards a final answer, decision, or outcome
  • Requires an Either/Or mindset
  • Policies, rules, facts, solution to problem

Polarity Management:

  • Managing unsolvable problems, optimizing the tension between 2 interdependent opposites
  • Requires a Both/And mindset
  • Stability and Change; Activity and Rest; Planning and Action

This frame-shift was presented as a key to more effective leadership.

In the second half of his talk, Andrew started with a curious exercise. He ran four scenes with two people who had a certain relationship and a certain location. In the first version, the actors were given the location and relationship. In the second version (I tried this one), one actor knew the relationship and the other actor knew the location. In the third version, an audience member knew both and would ding a bell if the dialog was “right”, and in the fourth version the actors drew dialog from slips of paper to constantly evolve the entire story.

This demonstrated four different problem types:
KNOWN: Both players knew who and where
KNOWABLE: Players could learn who and where from each other
COMPLEX: Players could possibly discern who and where (in hindsight) by probing
CHAOTIC: Who and where were unpredictable, as was dialogue

and with that comes four different approaches to problem solving:
KNOWN: Sense – Categorize – Respond
KNOWABLE: Sense – Analyze – Respond
COMPLEX: Probe – Sense – Respond
CHAOTIC: Act – Sense – Respond

[and part of the point here was the use of improv to demonstrate this model more tangibly than a basic slide deck, or say, um, a blog entry]

There were certain types of jobs that tended strongly towards one of these types
KNOWN: Sense – Categorize – Respond — Loan officer, FDA inspector
KNOWABLE: Sense – Analyze – Respond — Architect
COMPLEX: Probe – Sense – Respond — Kindergarten teacher
CHAOTIC: Act – Sense – Respond — Firefighter

This is known as The Cynefin Framework.

Both of these models remind me of to Wicked Problems, a framework I was excited to encounter (though admittedly I haven’t found any way to apply it other than in conversation).

I’ll describe the other talks and the conference in general in subsequent posts.

What am I in for?

I’m feeling eagerness and trepidation over the upcoming Applied Improv Conference. Eagerness because I find improv has enormous potential for creativity and collaboration (and even connections to ethnography) and discussions of improv can be provocative and intellectually invigorating.

And trepidation over whether this event will be filled with earnest, clowny, extroverted, unprofessional flakes where I’ve just got no common ground.

We have an exciting Plenary Session planned for Wednesday evening with Nika Quirk of InterPlay.
InterPlay means “interaction” and what could be better to kick off a conference? InterPlay is easy, fun, and life changing. It is based in a series of incremental “forms” that lead participants to movement and stories, silence and song, ease and amusement. In the process, we unlock the innate wisdom of our bodies and in our relationships.

Nika Quirk is a lifelong mover and student of dance, starting with her interest in wiggling to TV jingles at age 3. She founded and directed a Dance Choir using authentic movement and a collaborative choreography process she developed. Completing the yearlong InterPlay Leadership Program in 1997, she earned certification in the methodology and has focused her application of InterPlay in small groups, individual coaching, and “labs” exploring business partnership. Nika’s career spans law, business management, non-profit program development, academic teaching and professional coaching. In August, she began a doctoral program at California Institute of Integral Studies and is following her curiosity about the connections between improvisational ability and social creativity.

I guess it’s up to me to bring some open-mindedness back and cover up my cynicism (which I oh-so enjoy). The conference is local, so no travel costs, and is relatively inexpensive, and is an experiment for me. I’m passing on some of the typical conferences my peers are attending this year (and that I have been regulars at in the past) in order to branch out, but I can feel the tension inside me over that decision.


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