Improv: Stanford University Style via TEDx Talk

Yes they teach Improvisation at Stanford University. It is taught by our good friend, Dan Klein.

Dan shared this thought with me recently:

"Are you looking for inspiration? Inspire someone else. It's kind of like what my mom used to tell me when I would hope to get mail - just go write someone a letter instead of checking the mailbox every hour."  ~Dan Klein

In the video below you'll hear Dan share his view of the value of Improv in this 8 minute TEDx video.

Improv is moving out of the theater and into more and more parts of life.  Dan teaches improv not just to drama students but also to the business students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Platner Institute for Design. This seems like a great idea....there is hope for the world.


Saying Yes to Yourself to Follow Your Dreams


Shaun Usher of Letters of Note wrote a nice post about a letter from Pete Doctor of Pixar to Middle School Children following their own passions with determination to succeed. Reading this post made me realize that he was really talking about saying YES to his own offer. Often, it's hard to say YES in improv and follow other people's ideas - but it can be even harder to say YES to yourself.

We all have an internal critic that is ready to help chip away at our own ideas and dreams. The key is to recognize this critic and find a strategy to manage them.

Here are three ways to help quite the critic who lives in your head:

  1. CRUSH THEM - Every time you "hear" the critic in your own head or realize that he/she has voiced an opinion that has changed your direction, physically reach up and pull the critic from your head with your best mime work. Hold them in front of you, throw them on the floor and step on them - grinding them up like a cigarette butt like the punk in a bad 70's movie.
  2. GET OUT FRONT - Before you try the next step in something new you, have a short talk with the critic and inform them that Failure (and thus learning) is likely to occur soon and that you will rise triumphantly and try again until you get there.
  3. BELITTLE THEM - As you tread out into uncharted territory and the critic looks starts casting doubt on your intentions, keep moving forward telling them "Oh if you think it's going to be that bad, wait until you see what I do next!" and barrel ahead making things worse then they could every imagine. You know that on the other side is experience, wisdom, and insight for the next attempt OR quiet reflection and satisfaction on a job well done.

Now go out and say YES to 3 things you have been wanting to do, but have not done yet. What's the worst that could happen? You could learn something.

Why improv can help your team collaborate


Nilofer Merchant has an excellent article on Harvard Business Review blog named "Eight Dangers of Collaboration" These are the reasons that keep people from starting down the road of collaboration and innovation. Here are the eight dangers she lists:

  1. Not knowing the answer
  2. Unclear or uncomfortable roles
  3. Too much talking, not enough doing
  4. Information (over)sharing
  5. Fear of fighting
  6. More work
  7. More hugs than decisions
  8. It's hard to know who to praise and who to blame.

When is collaboration the right choice?

It's true that collaboration is not the silver bullet for new century business. It's just the newest hammer that people have found, but, don't forget that not everything is a nail.

Collaboration is great for innovation and group problem solving. For big endeavors or when you are really stretching the status quo to get to something new, collaboration will help you get there.

Collaboration works best when it's integrated deeply into your whole organizational culture. It's a mindset in addition to a methodology. When everyone understands the principles behind it and buys-in you get the real multiplier effects and avoid the dangers that Nilofer points out.

How to create a collaborative culture

With a few changes the list of "eight dangers" is a good assessment of what improvisers face going into a scene.

  1. Not knowing what happens next
  2. Unclear roles or characters
  3. Too much talking, not doing enough
  4. Information (over)sharing or making too many offers
  5. Fear of fighting
  6. A new way of working
  7. More offers than story
  8. At the end there is nobody to blame or praise, you are in it together

Improvisation is a pure form of collaboration. Because of that, improv has a great set of tools to learn the skills you need to work with a team when ambiguity abounds. Unlike work it's  afun and engaging pursuit and provides a great training ground for teamwork.

So, how do you get your organization to embrace this new mindset?

Start at the top

Culture change only works when the everyone is in. Teams can benefit from spot interventions and work better together,  when it's supported from the top its happens more easily. For example, when you look at how the board and executives feel about fiscal policy, professional development, or any aspect of a business you will see that reflected through every part of the organization. Get the executive team going on improv along with everyone else.

Integrate Applied Improv Into Learning and Development

Applied Improvisation is a well established corporate consulting discipline that uses the lessons of performance improv (yes, like the television show "Who's line is it anyway?") The main difference is that there are specific learning objectives and every exercise gives an opportunity to debrief with the group to draw the lessons from them. If you are working with someone who just plays games and moves on, find someone else.

For more see my Applied Improv Principles series or join the Applied Improv Network.

Encourage employees to start improv clubs, troupes, or sponsor classes

The lessons of improv are easily available to anyone who takes a class and learns it for performance. The truth is that exposure to improv helps people in myriad ways - confidence, public speaking, thinking on their feet, better communication... but that's another post.

What will you get out of studying Johstone style Improv? [or What's in it for me?]

Keith Johnstone

What will you get out of studying Johnstone Style Improv?

A great improv teacher has the ability to allow students to make deep changes.  There have been a few teachers who have had a lasting affect on the world of improvisation. Viola Spolin, Del Close and Keith Johnstone are the top three for me.  You're lucky if you've had a teacher who knew how to inspire and empower in a way where you thought that they were uncovering something that was there all along.

I asked the FaceBook community to share what they had learned from studying with Keith Johnstone.  The answers below are a good sampling.

To get a better idea the value of Keith Johnstone’s approach to improv one his two books, take a workshop with him or take a workshop with people who have studied with him for years. [hint]

What have you learned about acting from the work of Keith Johnstone?

  • Let the audience paint the emotions onto you rather than trying to show them emotion.  ~Richard Ross
  • That in developing ideas for a show or a character, you don't have to hold onto what you think is a good idea. There are a million (or so) other ideas . . . the chances of some of them being better are pretty darn good. ~Drew Letchworth
  • Say your first idea...don't hold out for a 'good' idea, don't be clever.  ~Johnny Kearns
  • Work and play cooperatively with others and ideas will come in more abundance!  ~Beth Palmer Hart
  • All will be well if your scene partner is a penguin.  ~Toby Hussein Butterfield
  • Apart from everything? It's all about fear.   ~Paul Killam
  • Dare to be boring.   ~Brenny Rabine
  • Connect with your partner(s) kinesthetically and emotionally.   ~Patricia Colley
  • Delight your partner.   ~Brett Bavar
  • Do not do your best, be average.   ~Roberto Alicino
  • Slow down. use less effort.   ~Rebecca Stockley
  • Let your actions serve the story.   ~Martin Ganapoler
  • The statuses must change during the scene. If you know your status, you know what to do.   ~Ann Feehan
  • Trying to please my partners. I forget it most of the time, but the percentage is a little better than it was.   ~Janie Summers
  • The audience should want to take you home with them.   ~Charles Souby

I want to thank the FB imrpov community for sharing what they've learned.  What are you interested in learning?

Status in London Business School


Professor Gabe Adams at London Business School is one of a growing number of academics that have seen the power of applied improv in the business world and integrated it into their curriculum. The students go from skeptical to evangelists in a single class. Applied improv can bridge the rigor of academic theory and real world practice in the classroom and prepare the students for the ambiguity that business life brings.

Prof. Adams asked me to teach status in her class Paths to Power which looks at many aspects of power. Status in improv, which is different than social status, looks at the behaviors and nonverbal communication that gives us authority or makes us approachable. Language still plays a role, but there is a whole world to explore when the dialogue is eliminated or constrained.

Status - a dynamic condition of a relationship or interaction

Social Status - a ranking of worth, value or importance

Even the simplest of exercises can start to explore the relationship of power and status. Dan Klein at Stanford University introduced me to a simple activity that asks students standing in a circle to take a single step forward and calmly say "Hello, my name is. And, I here." before stepping back into the circle. There are a huge number of variations that display the level of comfort the students have and their own relationships, in that moment, to authority and power. From humor, to rebellion, to simple and calm confidence to participate without changing the exercise or words - their actions speak loudly to the rest of the class as they observe.

Each student will take away their own lessons, insights, and learning from the class. However, one of my stated learning objectives was:

All human interactions are communication in the language of status. Making conscious choices in what you say nonverbally increases your chance of successful leadership.