At the Applied Improvisation Network’s 2011 annual conference in Baltimore, a bunch of us got together to explore the nuts and bolts of choosing, running and debriefing improv activities in organizational settings.
“We want a Top -10 Tips list,” one of the participants commented. Perhaps I should already have had such a thing, nicely designed and laminated, but I didn’t. Still, an offer is an offer, and we’re all improvisers, so we made one up as we went.
Here it is with a few embellishments based on conversations and musings since. Much of it comes down to practicing what you preach when you are teaching applied improv, and therefore link back to principles discussed here previously. What resonates for you? What did we miss? We look forward to you comments and input. Then we promise to laminate.
- Know your objective. Improv is no different from any other learning and development intervention. You must know what you are trying to accomplish. Ask yourself “What do I want the participants to DO differently when they leave here?” (See post 12/1/09 – Jolts etc. for more on identifying the types of activities and intentions.)
- Focus on your partner. The workshop participants are your partners. It is all about them. Keith Johnstone often criticized the emcees in his format, Theatresports, for competing for the limelight, instead of simply holding the space and providing a context for the performers to perform. Anything you do – including being charismatic or funny – should support your objective and add value for the learners, not just make you feel smart or attractive or important.
- Acknowledge and celebrate failure. Things don’t always go according to plan, or well for that matter. As we are encouraging our learners to take risks and try on new performances, , we must also be willing to try new things, adapt to the needs and styles of the learners in the room, and acknowledge and celebrate when activities don’t work. San Francisco-based improviser and trainer, Diane Rache, gave us a great example of saying, “Well, that didn’t go the way I planned! Whoo hoo!” People notice, and are delighted when you demonstrate that you too are fallible and willing to grow.
- Safe is different from comfortable. This is one of my personal favorites, and one that I credit my colleagues at Performance of a Lifetime with bringing home to me. I used to believe that creating a safe environment meant not requiring anyone to do anything that made them uncomfortable. Then it became clear that “comfortable” was the wrong goal. In some ways it is the opposite of the goal. Learning and growing is by definition about moving outside our “comfort zones”. Creating safety means creating an environment (and a mindset) in which one can seek out, and sit with, discomfort in order to stretch and grow. Just like working out at they gym or doing yoga. Duh. Ask yourself: What can I do to support the participants in trying NEW performances and gathering NEW insights.
- Yes, and the participants. Or as our guru, Thiagi, would say, “Let the inmates run the asylum.” If you don’t really want to know about participants’ experience of an activity, or their answers to your questions, don’t ask! If you do ask, honor their input – even if it is not what you were expecting, or like, or wanted. If we are really good we should be hugely prepared, and completely willing to throw away our plan if it turns out our agenda is not aligned with the needs of the learners.
- Dare to be dull. As I was about to run the “Mirror” game as an example of a non-verbal leadership exercise, to an audience of applied improv facilitators, I thought, “Geez, everyone here is going to know this game. What do I have that’s clever and original and impressive?” As improvisers, many of us like new things and want to feel exciting and clever and original and innovative. But the good ol’ staples are staples because they are great. They are simple and clear and foundational. AND… for many of your participants they are fresh, even revelatory. My father always used to talk about how orchestras like to play obscure modern pieces, but audiences want to hear Beethoven’s 9th. Use the game that meets your objective best, not the one that is most exciting to you. (See Tips 1,2 and 5) Of course, new games can be good, too. The times to try new game are when you feel you need something that meets a specific need better than the material you have. Or when you need to do something fresh to keep yourself focused and developing.
- Show, Don’t Tell. Experiential learning is valuable because it’s experiential. Do not tell the participants – before or after the game – what their experience will or should be. Ask, listen, respect, build from. (See Tip 5 again – it’s always all about yes, and, of course.)
- Activity is just an excuse for a good debrief. Again quoting the incomparable Thiagi. Tip 7 notwithstanding, we do not learn from our experience, we learn from examining our experience. Think about your objective and structure your debrief in service of it. Oh, and remember some of Thiagi’s fabulous 6 Debrief questions – useful for any activity in any circumstance:
• How do you feel?
• What happened?
• What did you learn?
• How does this relate to the real world?
• What if? (e.g. What if we played with strangers; What if I told you you were wrong after every offer…)
• What next?
- Respect differences. Use activities that are varied. Respect different behavioral and learning styles. Improv, as much as we tout its value, is just one of many tools. As attractive as our flashy hammer may be, not everything is a nail.
- Improv is valuable – trust yourself. AND…Improv is a hugely valuable tool. It is not just a metaphor. We are all improvising all the time. Do not over-sell. Trust that if you thought about Tips 1 and 2, your participants WILL see value. You are NOT an imposter.
Thank you! What else?