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.


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.

AIN Open Space


Welcome to the AIN conference, we have no idea what this conference will be about - let's make it up.

There is a little more too it than that, but that is what this conference is. It is an improvised conference. The participants create deliver and participate in the program but it is made up each day. We all knew ahead of time and people still prepared material to present, but there was no official program schedule created.

The concept is structured and has rules and is called Open Space. It is based on the idea that the best part of many conferences is the coffee breaks where great conversations take place and tries to make the conference all coffee breaks.

It is particularly intriguing for improvisers who love to life in the moment and create on the fly. There can be a slight downside in that it can tend to have a lack of flow in some sessions because the prep work is not there, but it can also be inspirational and capture what is current and interesting to many people.

And, if it's not good - the law of two feet requires that you get up and leave if you feel like you don't want to be there anymore. So the social contract of not being rude by leaving the middle is changed. It can be a big relief when it's just nor for you.

So, would you come to a conference if you knew there was no program?

Applied Improv Rapid Instructional Design


You are in front of the room. You are about to begin to teach, train, coach, lead, facilitate, moderate, mediate - bring the group through some experience in which they are going to learn. What comes next? Do you PLAN or PREPARE? Is there a difference? I say YES based on working with Thiagi from The Thiagi Group. He has collected ideas that combine being "in the moment" and "adapting on the fly" that create an exciting and engaging style of learning. There's more at the website

Here is a recent tweet stream that is a particularly helpful set of principles that you can adopt into any learning forum that you do.

  • #RID. An activity for using TEDTalk videos for teaching presentation skills.
  • #RID. Empower learners. Read Pearl Nitsche's "Talk Less, Teach More" and Donal Finkel's "Teaching with Your Mouth Shut".
  • Faster, Cheaper, Better (FCB): Approach to rapid instructional design (#RID). We Share a set of principles. Respond with skeptical remarks.
  • #RID Principle 1: Let the inmates run the asylum. Empower learners to take charge of their learning. Make them responsible and accountable.
  • #RID. Give choice to the learners. Let them determine what specific objectives they want to master and how they want to master them.
  • #RID. Learning styles could be all baloney but giving learners a choice in how they learn increases their motivational level.
  • #RID. Let learners become trainers. People learn effectively by training others. Use jigsaw approach to require and reward mutual learning.
  • #RID. Teach different groups of learners different units of knowledge or and steps in a skill. Let them teach other. Peer teaching rocks!
  • #RID. Teach different model, theories, and perspectives to different groups of learners. Let them jointly analyze scenarios and cases.
  • #RID. Let the learners test each other. Evaluating others’ performance using objective rating scale helps learners increase their mastery.
  • #RID. Let learners become instructional designers. Ask them to create posters, job aids, graphics, podcasts to enhance the training process.
  • #RID. Let this group of learners write advice and suggestions to future groups of learners on how best to master the training objectives.
  • #RID. Gradually convert your instructor-led training sessions into self instruction by using training materials created by learners.
  • #RID. Let learners generate content. Use activities that structure the collection, clustering, and sharing of best practices and examples.
  • #RID. Let learners generate questions on the content they learned. Embed these questions in quiz contests, board games, and final tests.
  • #RID. Let learners provide feedback. Let them evaluate each others' product by using objective rubrics. It improves everyone's performance.

Applied Improv Principles: Listening


In the article What is Applied Improv? I discussed seven principles of improv that apply in the work environment. Here I expand on the concept of "Listening" Listening is something we all do every day. In improv the concept of listening goes beyond hearing words that others are saying. Deeper listening involves letting go of your own ideas and being in the moment to take in what is being communicated. Instead, we are often waiting for a pause to insert our own ideas, using the time others are speaking to refine what we are going to say when they stop. Listening also absorbing holistically to how things are being said including gesture, inflection, expression, body-language, and vocal tone. In doing this we are seeking to understand the full meaning in it’s context.

Take a moment and recall the last conversation you had with someone. Could you tell their story to someone else? How much detail could you remember? How about the tone they used?

In fact when we are really connected we can listen for much more than the words. The next time you are hearing someone tell you their story, try to listen for all of these aspects:

  • Descriptive details (where, color, size, number, etc)
  • Tone of the story
  • Their emotion - how important is the story to them
  • Who is the story really about - usually one person primarily
  • What gestures do they use?
  • Vocal quality - loud, dynamic, whispered
  • What is their intent? - to persuade, convince, relate, validate, help, share?

The key is to focus on the other person instead of yourself, your own reaction, or what you are going to say. You may also have to put away your expectation of where they are going with it. Open yourself up to being surprised.